China-Europe relations hit a freezing point Human rights are an inescapable issue

The employment training base of a garment company in Hotan, Xinjiang, is enclosed by two layers of barbed wire. (Dec. 5, 2018)

The recent bitter standoff between the Communist Party of China and the European Union has caused relations, which were heating up, to drop almost overnight to another freezing point in decades. On the other side of the coin, several MEPs listed for sanctions by the Communist Party’s foreign ministry have strongly criticized the Communist Party’s practices and vowed to continue to pay attention to its human rights abuses.

In a rare move, Western countries acted in concert last week to impose sanctions on the Chinese Communist Party over massive human rights violations in Xinjiang. The 27-nation European Union was the first to issue a statement announcing sanctions against four Communist Party officials and one entity in the Xinjiang region following consultations on the round of sanctions. The Chinese Communist Party immediately responded by announcing retaliatory sanctions against 10 individuals and four entities in the EU.

While U.S.-China relations have been in conflict in recent years, China-EU relations seem to be going quite well in recent years, with the Chinese Communist Party overtaking the U.S. as the EU’s largest trading partner for the first time last year and the two sides signing a landmark China-EU investment agreement late last year after seven years and 35 rounds of negotiations, laying the groundwork for further economic integration between the two sides. The Chinese Communist Party, under Xi Jinping’s mandate, made significant concessions to the EU in several key areas that had long been unresolved. The EU says the agreement will ensure better access for EU investors to a fast-growing market of 1.4 billion consumers and ensure they compete on a level playing field for the CCP.

The good momentum appeared to continue until earlier this month, when Eurostat data released March 18 showed that EU exports of goods to China totaled 16.1 billion euros in January this year, up 6.6 percent from a year earlier.

The German Mercator Institute is also one of the four entities sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party. Grzegorz Stec, an expert at the institute’s Center for China Studies, said the EU has launched sanctions against the Communist Party before, such as last year’s sanctions against two Chinese nationals for cyberattacks, but they are not comparable to the latest sanctions. He said the latest round is historic, the first time the EU has sanctioned the Chinese Communist Party on human rights issues since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989.

He said, “This time the EU made it clear that it was over human rights issues, a subject that the CCP clearly views as an internal matter for China, and that the CCP’s countermeasures are unprecedented.”

Sanctioned lawmakers respond forcefully

Five MEPs were among the 10 individuals and four entities announced by the Communist Party of China to be sanctioned, slamming the MEPs for maliciously spreading lies and disinformation on border-related issues. In addition to being banned from entering China themselves, companies and institutions associated with them have also been restricted from doing business with China.

Raphael Glucksmann, who is on the Chinese Communist Party’s sanctions list, said the sanctions are an affirmation of his longstanding concern and advocacy for the human rights of Muslim minorities, including the Uighurs. Glucksmann was elected in 2019 on a promise to speak out on behalf of those unable to do so, including the Uighurs of Xinjiang. He told Voice of America, “Fortunately, we have worked to raise public awareness of this issue, and that’s why they [China] are annoyed with me.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also met with Glucksman last week to show solidarity with him after the Chinese Communist Party announced sanctions.

Ilhan Kyuchyuk, another MEP targeted by the Communist Party, said the EU’s sanctions against the Communist Party are based on solid legal evidence. In an email to Voice of America, he said, “While the EU’s strategic relationship with the Chinese Communist Party is important, we cannot remain silent when what is happening to Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang is becoming clear.”

Michael Gahler, foreign policy coordinator and spokesman for the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament, told VOA, “Of course, the future dialogue between the EU Parliament and the Chinese Communist Party will be more difficult. I regret that the human rights dialogue between the EU Parliament and the Chinese Communist Party will be more difficult in the future. In any case, I will continue to stand by my commitment to human rights and democracy.”

He also said he suspected that China’s decision to sanction him was linked to his chairmanship of the “Friends of Taiwan” group in the parliament.

Miriam Lexmann, a Slovak national, said in an email to VOA that the human rights situation in the Communist Party of China is dire and that the Communist Party’s human rights violations are the worst since Tiananmen Square. Instead of facing up to its own problems, the Communist Party is threatening and countering democratically elected lawmakers. She said, “If the Chinese Communist Party continues to be obsessed, it will be a clear indication that they are not interested in being a partner of the EU, but are hell-bent on being an institutional adversary that undermines the fundamental values and principles that are necessary for any cooperation.”

Europe and the US launch simultaneous sanctions

The inauguration of the new U.S. administration has continued to emphasize the importance of building democratic alliances, and the “spring chill” in Sino-European relations has coincided with Secretary of State Blinken’s first visit to the EU and NATO.

Andreea Brînză, vice president of the Asia Pacific Institute in Romania, told VOA that while the timing looks like a joint European and American alliance, the EU sanctions “are not driven by the U.S., they are simply in sync with the U.S.” She said the EU’s recent stance on Communist China is based on the EU’s fundamental values.

In a recent commentary, Brindza noted that the Chinese Communist Party tends to misjudge European democracies. For example, she said, the Chinese Communist Party has strongly criticized the Italian Senate for inviting Hong Kong school leader Huang Zhifeng to a video conference, prompting a unanimous backlash from Italian Prime Minister Antonio Conte and party leaders. Conte has defied U.S. opposition and made Italy the first country in the West to sign the “Belt and Road” agreement with the Chinese Communist Party.

Secretary of State John Blinken said at NATO headquarters in Brussels last week that the United States will not force any NATO ally to choose a position between the United States and China.

Although Europe and the United States acted almost simultaneously, the Biden administration’s position was not the motivation for the EU’s sanctions, said Steck, a China expert at the Mercator Institute, which passed resolutions on Xinjiang and Hong Kong in the European Parliament last year.

We may have many differences with the United States, we may have different positions on the Middle East and on issues involving many other countries, but I think we are all aware of the same threat in the face of the growing threat of the Chinese Communist dictatorship,” said French-born Glucksman.

The Fate of the China-EU Investment Agreement in Jeopardy?

The recent bitter confrontation between the Communist Party and the European Union could also affect the historic investment agreement they reached just late last year. The agreement was scheduled to be considered for adoption and implementation this year, but the European Parliament has decided to cancel the China-EU Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI) review meeting after Beijing strongly condemned and immediately countered the EU sanctions. Some MPs have suggested that the lifting of Chinese sanctions is a condition for negotiations on the agreement. In addition, MEPs from across the political spectrum have expressed concern about forced labor in the CCP, saying that the CCP should ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO) convention on the issue before the agreement is adopted.

In an interview with the Voice of America, Glucksman said he believes there are many lawmakers in parliament now who believe the CCP must be made to pay the price for its actions. He said they are trying to push through a resolution that would ban forced labor products from the European market.

Speaking to VOA, Steck of the Mercator Institute said many lawmakers have pointed out that the current version does not contain strong enough provisions to protect labor rights. But he also argued that Beijing may judge that the agreement should not be yellow and that the conflict between the two sides may not end up undoing the agreement.

Eyck Freymann, a China expert at Oxford University, said the recent conflict between China and the EU has more political significance than economic implications. China and the EU are trading, and their deeply integrated trade relationship will not be broken overnight, and there are still influential European interests that want to continue their close relationship with the Communist Party.

But on the other hand, the author of “One Belt, One Road: China Power Meets the World” also told Voice of America: “As long as human rights issues remain a major concern in Europe, China-EU economic relations will not be able to deepen and expand.”