How normative should Europe’s China policy be? 
A controversial conversation between: Miguel Otero (Elcano) and Tim Rühlig (German Council on Foreign Relations)

Shared starting point: Europe’s more principled China approach

In recent years, Europe’s China policy got tougher if not more hawkish. Oftentimes, Europeans refer to political values and the breach of them by China. Whether human rights violations against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, the breach of international law on the status of Hong Kong or more general observations of a tightening grip of authoritarian control over the country under President Xi Jinping – Europeans condemn these policies and occasionally take countermeasures. China’s more assertive foreign policy including aggressive diplomacy by some diplomats in Europe, referred to as “Wolf Warriors”, has further contributed to this.

The reasons for the shift in Europe’s tougher China policy are more complex, though. China is now more self-confident in its own societal model and more assertive in its foreign policy. Most importantly, China is no longer primarily seen as a sales market and thereby as an opportunity for businesses, but as a competitor and even systemic rival in Europe. China’s economy has moved up the value chain and the PRC hast turned into an innovation powerhouse. The days of Europe’s economic and technological superiority are gone – and so are the cooperative tones from EU capitals.

Another factor is the ongoing global power shift. China is no longer a developing country but one of the two most powerful states in the world. The European Union has deep ties with the United States with which it shares values, interests and a security alliance. Equally, since 2008 and the Global Financial Crisis which started in the US, China has grown more confident internationally and is pushing for its own interests more proactively. At the same time, the PRC leaders are still worried about vulnerabilities to its regime stability and have adopted a more negative stance towards the West, which they see as a potential source of danger to their regime. Whether time is necessarily on China’s side and whether the PRC will grow into the world’s largest economy is an open question.

Finally, infringements of universal values as exemplarily described above, have increased since Xi Jinping rose to power. Thus, Europe’s concern for human rights and the rules-based international order are more than just lip service.

Is Europe’s more hawkish China policy laudable or is it leading the European Union into the wrong direction?

Miguel Otero and Tim Rühlig have different views and discuss this subject with regard to four questions (click on the questions to see the dialogue):

Tim: One might argue that the European Union can hardly be characterized as truly concerned of human rights violations – otherwise, it would be more consistent and not work with other autocracies. This may be true but even unintended consequences can bear positive results. Making fundamental human rights a guideline of one’s course of action is anything but a disgrace. The fact that Europe continues to be blind on other grave human rights violations should not be an excuse to implement the same policy towards China.

Miguel: Europe’s denouncement of China’s human rights record is not new, it has even been institutionalized in the bilateral relationships with specific dialogue frameworks to talk about this issue. What is new is that the EU started to sanction Chinese officials for Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang. That has worsened the relationship because China has counter-sanctioned in an excessive way because it has always been jealous of external intervention in its sovereign affairs. What is unclear is whether the European sanctions have helped to improve the lives of the Uighur population in Xinjiang. One can cynically think that the situation in Xinjiang was high in the public discourse of many China critiques after the CAI between the EU and China was signed to torpedo it, but after that the public attention has dropped. Of course, it is true that the War in Ukraine has overshadowed a lot of these debates, but still the sense is that the EU’s concerns for human rights violations is very selective. There is particular focus on China because of its size and power, and the timing of these critiques seems to be selective too. And I repeat, it is important that the EU speaks out against human rights violations in China, but I don’t know whether doing it through loudspeaker diplomacy and sanctions helps the repressed, and whether the double-standards we adopt (Saudi Arabia comes to mind) are undermining our credibility in taking the moral high ground.

Tim: While I agree that not European criticism, but sanctions are new I consider this a positive development. By passing Europe’s own “Magnitsky Act” European criticism has finally become momentous. European sanctions against China have been received as a provocation in China, but Chinese reactions have been, as your rightly say, been excessive. An interesting question is whether international criticism and sanctions have improved the situation for Uigurs. Independent research suggests that – for whatever reason – the situation has slightly improved. I find it not completely unreasonable to think that international pressure has played a role. But even if it has not, thinking of sanctions only in a short-term transactional way is misleading in my opinion. Sanctions send signals to China, to the rest of the world and to the EU itself. If we stand firm with universal values, it strengthens these values even if sanctions do not have an immediate effect. Sanctions against Russia in 2014 and 2021 have neither prevented nor ended the war in Ukraine. Most sanctions unfold their power only over the medium- and long-term. If the short-term was the only reference, we should not use sanctions for any type of reason anymore – for whatever reason. Sanctions have several functions, one of taking a stance and signaling the entire world that you are willing to pay a price for universal values. That in itself makes sanctions meaningful.

Miguel: I think every case must be analyzed on its own. And I am not against sanctions per se. But what is sure is that sanctions on Iran, Cuba and North Korea have produced meager results even in the long run.

Tim: It may surprise many in the west, but the legitimacy of Chinese Communist Party rule is very high in the PRC. Whoever hopes for regime change is gravely miscalculating the domestic situation in China. While grievances exist in the country there is no indication for a pro-democratic mass-movement. While it is true that regime change has often occurred in a surprisingly short time, ending CCP rule should not be the goal of western policymaking.

Miguel: I couldn’t agree more. And I would go even further, underneath the strategy of “engaging with China”, incorporating China in the WTO etc, there was this implicit or explicit attempt or even strategy to push China to become more liberal and democratic. This backlashed. For too long many Westerners lectured the Chinese about how they needed to become more like us, that they needed to see “the light”, and this created certain resentment in much of the Chinese elite. After the 2008 crisis, when China saw the weaknesses of the Western “neoliberal” model, this resentment came more to the fore.

Tim: I quite disagree with you on that. Not western lecturing has turned China more authoritarian but a combination of crises in the west and the CCP’s hold on one-party rule. China would be no different if we had not advocated universal values. Moreover, in both Hong Kong and Taiwan a majority of the population rejects CCP rule. While the west cannot bring regime change to China it should carefully consider how it can make sure it does not leave those alone that support human rights and democracy. In short, while the west may indeed not always be realistic about its assessment and goals this does not rule out a principled policy that takes seriously popular demands – in mainland China as in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Miguel: Again, very much in agreement, but I think the more hostile the West is to China in broad and brushing ways, there more we lose many liberal minded Chinese in Mainland China who think that the West, especially the US, just wants to keep China down. As Yuen Yuen Ang has argued, the US aggressive stand against China since Donald Trump has been used by Xi Jinping to consolidate its power. In short, principled policy is fine, but hostility in terms of trade and tech wars is counterproductive, in my opinion.

Tim: I believe that this overestimates the impact that the west has on the domestic developments in China. And, frankly, I have also had very different experiences with Chinese liberal-minded people who made very clear that they hoped we stand firm and do not give in to Chinese demands.

Miguel: Well, I have also met many Chinese telling me that that they are fed up with Western (including European) lecturing. On this topic, I recommend the book The Idea of Europe by Shane Weller who argues that since the Ancient Greeks we have always adopted certain Euro-centrism, Euro-supremacism and Euro-universalism when analyzing Eastern civilizations.

Tim: The discussion of “Asian values” is not new but has never been convincing me. No doubt, cultural differences exist and the idea that the rest of the world must want to live like we do in the west is cultural imperialism. However, China’s human rights infringement concern very basic human rights. From all my experience in China, I can see that social and cultural rights, primarily the right to economic development gain relatively more support. Individual civil liberties and political rights that are at the center in the west receive less attention. This is fully understandable and we in the west should be more receptive to this.

Miguel: Right, again in agreement here.

Tim: Fundamental rights such as the right to an independent life are universal. That Chinese people do care about the individual right to life and do not want to be guaranteed a fulfilling life that requires basic freedoms sounds awkward to me – and it does not confirm my experience.

If we consider the situation in Xinjiang, the incarceration of 1 million or more members of Muslim minorities, that we have considerable evidence for, I can hardly see how China’s leaders are compliant with basic human rights that – in my view – are clearly universal.

Miguel: As I said, there are grave human rights violations in China, and specifically in Xinjiang, and the EU, and we us Europeans, should denounce them (as we should denounce human rights violations in Europe itself too. And I am not comparing here abuses, but we all know Europe is not flawless). Having said that, there might be some collective human rights (around development and security), which are more engrained in the Chinese culture, that might be universal too. The debate on whether you can achieve a high respect of human rights, and the consolidation of a full democracy, without development first is an old one in critical studies of comparative and international political economy. The same way that individual rights are violated daily in China, it is true that the CPP has lifted 800 million people out of poverty, and these people have considerably improved their human condition.

Tim: I do not question the enormous successes of development in China over the last few decades. But economic development is no excuse whatsoever for the violation of basic civil liberties.

Miguel: There is never an excuse for the violation of basic human rights, but as you know, the concept of “civil liberties” is very idiosyncratic, especially when it comes to China which has never really had a civil society as we understand in the West.

Tim: It is certainly true that many well-intended attempts to protect civilians from grave human rights violations, including mass atrocities have failed. Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or in Africa in the 1990s and humanitarian intervention have hardly achieved its goals…

Miguel: …look and the West has committed some big mistakes that have undermined human rights in many places. Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo come to mind…

Tim: However, failure does not absolve us from our responsibility. By that logic, we should no longer fight climate change. For decades, we discuss climate change have not been effectively combatting it. Nonetheless, and rightly so, have we not given up the goal. Contrary, fulfilling our responsibility has never been more urgent.

It is also correct that we Europeans have a long colonial history and are responsible for grave human rights violations and mass atrocities. This, however, is not an excuse to make the same mistakes again today. Instead, an aspiration of “civilizational learning” is necessary. We need to position ourselves clearly – against the backdrop of our own history.

Miguel: As I said, I am with you on this cause, and “fighting” for the cause, I am not so sure whether the methods we have used, and are still using, are the right ones. Civilizational learning is a very good start, continuing with some sort of “civilizational mission” is highly problematic. I am more with Dani Rodrik and others who argue that we need to co-habit with other powers like China, which have their own socio-economic, even civilizational model, without the ambition of the primacy of our own model. China has become relatively developed and, in some parts, very prosperous without following our recipes. On the contrary, as Justin Yifu Lin has mentioned many times, China has become rich precisely by not following the Washington Consensus and developing a more state-permeated capitalism.

Tim: In my opinion, you are conflating two issues that I would like to keep separate: the economic development model and civil liberties. China is free to and has been successful in using a state-permeated capitalism to grow rich. I believe that this model is facing difficult times now that China has reached a certain stage of development and that the PRC has seen its best economic days. But that’s a different subject from civil liberties. Economic development can by no means be an excuse for human rights violations in Xinjiang or violations of freedoms to Hong Kong that were codified in a piece of international law, namely the Sino-British Joint Declaration. We speak about universal values and international agreements that China has signed and accepted.

I agree that the first conclusion from history should be that we do not commit grave human rights violations ourselves. We do not live up this standard and this is a disgrace. However, human rights violations in China are not minor. Mass surveillance, the crackdown of Hong Kong’s free society and – first and foremost – indiscriminatory brutality against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang are disproportionate and grave human rights violations.

Miguel: Correct, and we need to denounce them, but also be aware that only the Chinese themselves will decide on their own when they will stop with such behavior. The track record of imposing sanctions to improve the life of the populations in authoritarian regimes is not very good. South Africa was a positive case, but, again, I repeat, Cuba, North Korea, Iran and others show that the regime might use these “foreign attacks” to consolidate its grip on power.

What to conclude?

Tim: Europe’s inconsistent approach to political values is damaging – not least with a view to the Global South. The impression that we apply double standards is not incorrect. However, the systemic rivalry between the west and China is real. Yes, it is about power competition – but not only, it’s also about values.

  • Our predominant duty is to consistently live up to our own principles and values at home.
  • Our second duty is to make sure our own actions do not support grave human rights violations abroad. This is why the German government’s decision not to grant export guarantees to VW’s Xinjiang business is positive.
  • Our third duty is to stand firm with human rights and do whatever is possible to prevent grave human rights violations and mass atrocities. Banning or taxing imported products made in violations of these human rights should be a legitimate response.

That would be my conclusion. How about you?

Miguel: I agree, but would add the following two:

  • Our fourth duty is to understand that genuine change in countries tends to be indigenous. We need to work with those like-minded in these countries, but also avoid actions that weaken their hand.
  • Finally, while we are convinced that liberal democracy is the least bad of all political systems, we should refrain from imposing it onto others and accept that other models might lead to development and prosperity and therefore might have a high degree of legitimacy.

Tim: I fully agree with your first addition and partially with your second. We cannot impose our system on others whether we like it or not. But promoting the ideas of liberal democracy is still something I would always include in Europe’s policy toolbox.

The foreign policy of all countries at all times have been inconsistent. But while I welcome that basic political values play a greater role in the foreign policy considerations of Europe I believe, you do not.

Miguel: Indeed, I opt for more pragmatism and co-habitation and coexistence of different systems as long as none of the players tries to impose its model on the others. Having said this, I strongly believe that the European model, based on political pluralism, social welfare and market economies, is the best one for us Europeans.

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