Europe needs a new approach to human rights in China

Twenty years after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the EU should must help enforce the rule of law in China


This piece was originally published in EUobserver on 4 June 2009.  

EUOBSERVER / COMMENT – Tiananmen Square marked a turning point not only in China’s political evolution, but in its relations with the rest of the world. The violent suppression of student demonstrators put a sudden stop to the peaceful opening up and engagement with the West which Deng Xiaoping had pioneered throughout the 80’s.

Europe and the US immediately slapped arms embargos on China that last to this day. Both also upped their public condemnation of China’s human rights record and began to insist that human rights play a larger role in their bilateral relationships with China.

Tiananmen is responsible for the EU having a political dialogue with China at all, whose relations before 1989 had been focussed exclusively trade, investment and aid. But are the measures that we put in place 20 years ago to castigate China still relevant, and are they having any effect?

China has certainly changed a huge amount since 1989, arguably more than anywhere else on the planet. Unparalleled economic growth has brought with it a liberalisation of socio-economic rights that external pressure and lobbying would have never achieved. The restrictive environment of “work units”, “residence permits” (breaking down in practice if not officially), and the state governing every aspect of citizens lives is now largely gone. Put simply: the rule of law has improved because Chinese and foreign businesses have forced it to.

Politically the story is very different. As a senior European Diplomat once told me: 2000 years ago during the Qin Dynasty people elected their village head but every level of power above that was appointed by more senior levels, ultimately the Emperor; today mainland Chinese elect their village head and every level above that is appointed by a higher level of the Party, ultimately the Politburo.

So some reforms take time, a lot of time. Similarly real political reform since 1989 has been minimal, and confined largely to the development of rule of law, rather than the ruling Party. Dissidents of all kind are still routinely locked up. The media is still tightly controlled, albeit through a more sophisticated web of self-censorship. And democracy is still nowhere on the horizon.

Procedural games

What then should be Europe’s agenda on these issues? Its current strategy and toolbox date from the fallout of Tiananmen, with much effort expended on the formal EU-China Human Rights Dialogue and high level lobbying on individual cases. European officials that work on the dialogue report that they are deeply frustrated with the endless procedural games the Chinese side play to avoid engaging on any real substance. And even when they do engage, EU officials know they have little impact because they are stuck talking to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that has no role in the development of China’s domestic governance.

Europe needs a new approach to human rights in China. It will pain us to do so, but we have to acknowledge that we no longer have the power to be able to force China’s hand on any of these issues. Europe’s human rights agenda with China therefore needs to focus on topics where we are not working directly against the Chinese government, but ideally with them. It also needs to focus on topics that matter to Europe and will make a tangible difference in China.

Across the board Europeans would do better to stop thinking of their dialogue with China as a human rights one, based on values, but as a dialogue on the rule of law. Such a dialogue should focus on further restricting the use of the death penalty, which the Chinese leadership have themselves already taken some steps towards doing.

Focussing on the rule of law

It should also focus on ending imprisonment without judicial review, a development again supported by Beijing but yet to be properly implemented and which would in practice do a lot more for stopping abuses than simply handing over lists of names of those already unjustly imprisoned. And the EU could usefully focus on strengthening religious freedoms which are in theory guaranteed in the Chinese constitution. This has to include discussion of Tibet, which whilst sensitive, is an issue where Europe has a locus and has leverage in the form of existing contacts with the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama.

But none of this will have much effect if Europeans cannot get beyond the MFA gatekeepers. As on many other issues, the EU’s effort is diluted with multiple competing dialogues run by individual member states. The EU should offer to combine these into a single enhanced dialogue with China, but on the condition that the principle interlocutors on the Chinese side are the senior government and Party officials whose opinion count on these issues.

Such a pragmatic approach to Europe’s dialogue on human rights with China is necessary, but it does not mean that Europe should stop being a normative power. While in practice we cannot force China to change, we can continue to act as inspiration for those within China that demand change for themselves and the NGOs and other groups that work for it.

European leaders need to increase, not decrease, their vocal commitment to the values that the EU stands for and that these are universal values, not Western ones that do not apply to Chinese citizens. The trick will be to focus bilaterally on the practical issues that matter with China, while reminding China publicly that we do not agree with how its government currently defines and uphold the rights of its citizens.

The writer is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and co-author of ECFR’s recent report, A Power Audit of EU-China Relations.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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