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China-EU relations: self-censorship by EU diplomats is commonplace

EU-China dialogues: not as tense as you might think. European External Action Service via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Two recent incidents in which the EU reportedly bowed to pressure from Beijing to censor criticism of China and its role in the COVID-19 pandemic raised alarm in European capitals. But my research suggests that these are merely rare public examples of a worrying culture of complacency and self-censorship in EU diplomacy with China, the EU’s second largest trade partner.

On April 24, the New York Times reported that the EU’s foreign service, the European External Action Service (EEAS), had delayed and altered a report on COVID-19 disinformation by governments, following pressure by Chinese diplomats. Despite denials of any self-censorship by the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, the scandal was quickly followed by another similar incident.

The EU’s Beijing delegation confirmed that it had accepted China’s request to censor details about the Chinese origins of COVID-19 in exchange for the publication of an opinion article in the state-run China Daily newspaper on May 6 celebrating 45 years of EU-China cooperation.

Rather than being rare errors of judgement, findings from my research into the practical promotion of the EU’s values in EU-China diplomacy suggest that such dynamics are commonplace.

Behind closed doors

Through Article 21 of the Lisbon Treaty, the international promotion of the EU’s values, such as human rights and the rule of law, represent a constitutional obligation for EU officials. They are meant to systematically promote or – in official jargon, mainstream – the EU’s values in all diplomatic exchanges.

And yet I found that the promotion of EU values, which China largely rejects, was overwhelmingly absent from diplomacy with China.

Human rights represent the greatest area of disagreement. In recent years, the EU has officially expressed concern about China’s deteriorating human rights environment. Key issues include China’s mass internment of over one million Uighurs and the erosion of political freedoms in Hong Kong. But behind closed doors, such concerns are rarely addressed.

I conducted extensive interviews with officials from the EEAS and the European Commission who have direct involvement with EU-China diplomatic dialogues. These dialogues are on the frontline of the EU-China relationship and consist of regular diplomatic meetings that take place for each of the more than 60 areas, known as policy sectors, of cooperation. Each closed-door exchange includes ten to 20 officials on each side, runs for one or two days, and aims to deepen cooperation and resolve challenges.

Roundtable meeting at the Great Hall of the People at the 18th EU-China Summit in Beijing in July 2016. European External Action Service., CC BY-NC

A culture of complacency and self-censorship

The most prominent justification given by the EU officials I interviewed for avoiding the promotion of EU values in their meetings related to a fear of upsetting Chinese diplomats. There was widespread concern that any mention of unpalatable EU values would trigger often immediate negative consequences from China. Officials implied that they focused narrowly on their specific policy sector as a result.

For example, one commission official said integrating human rights into trade dialogues “might antagonise” the Chinese side, while addressing a “purely business” approach would get “more traction”. Another commission official involved in energy said raising human rights would “really stop cooperation in many areas”. The official added: “As a general strategy to address it in every dialogue we have, I think it’s impossible, it would not work.”

Some officials also framed the promotion of values as pointless. Low-ranking and opaque Chinese counterparts were considered unable to influence China’s policies in these areas.

A large number also felt that EU values were implicitly promoted through their dialogues so required no further action. Many others viewed the issue as simply irrelevant. They typically cast values as unsuitable “political issues” and considered them the exclusive responsibility of specific dialogues, particularly the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. Such a division of labour was considered natural by officials, yet it represents countless missed opportunities to promote the EU’s values with China.

In the few dialogues where the EU’s values were promoted, notably the human rights dialogue, they appeared to be approached ineffectively. In this case, EEAS diplomats seemed to lack reflectiveness about how they were engaging with China in ways that were counterproductive. Their strong belief in human rights meant that they repeatedly asserted the EU’s stance, while dismissing alternative Chinese perspectives. This merely fuelled a tendency for China to simply refuse to engage in any meaningful discussion on human rights.

Read more: China is building a global coalition of human rights violators to defend its record in Xinjiang – what is its endgame?

What’s at stake

A failure to assert the EU’s values with China has disturbing implications. The EU’s silence could be mistaken for an acceptance or even legitimisation of China’s policies in areas such as human rights. Meanwhile, China is extending its international influence through major investments and acquisitions, including via its US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.

A world where China’s values were universal would likely see China’s model of governance as the new normal. Governments could assert unlimited power over their citizens, including the capacity to restrict basic rights, like the freedoms of movement and speech, currently taken for granted in the West.

The EU needs to carefully consider the costs of its current complacency and self-censorship with China.

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