If you want to know why the European Union has shied from challenging China on its human rights record, look no further than what happened the last time a European country crossed Beijing.
In November 2013, a Spanish court ordered a prosecuting magistrate in charge of an investigation into an alleged genocide in Tibet to issue international arrest warrants for former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, former Prime Minister Li Peng and three other retired top Communist officials.
The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 2006 by two Tibetan support groups based in Spain and a Tibetan exile with Spanish nationality. It took advantage of a local law that allowed Spanish judges to prosecute crimes against humanity committed outside the country — legislation that famously led to the arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the U.K. in 1998.
Beijing didn’t take long to respond. Two days after the ruling, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei, expressed Beijing’s “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to the investigation and warned Spanish authorities “not [to] do things that harm the Chinese side and the relationship between China and Spain.”
Behind the scenes, Beijing froze all high-level meetings with Spanish representatives, including a state visit by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, according to two sources in the foreign and economy ministries.
“They put us in the fridge for a while,” said a Spanish official who was working in Beijing at the time.
Much was at stake for Madrid and its relationship with the world’s second biggest economy, as the country started to recover from an economic crisis that had wiped 10 percent off its GDP over the previous five years.
More and more countries are shying away from criticizing Beijing for fear of economic retaliation.
China had bought Spanish public debt when Madrid was struggling to deal with rising borrowing costs. The figures aren’t public but some reports said that in 2014 Beijing held 20 percent of Spanish bonds not held by the country’s residents.
The Spanish government feared that Beijing could unleash a new surge in borrowing costs by suddenly selling its titles, according to a Spanish official who worked in Beijing at the time.
Meanwhile, two of the biggest Spanish investments in China — Abengoa’s desalination plant in Shandong and Ferroatlántica’s silicon processing plant in Sichuan — were having trouble with local governments and partners, and Madrid was trying to smooth things over via officials in Beijing. Also, Spanish exports, one of the keys of the still fragile economic recovery, were growing nicely in China.
If the diplomatic crisis didn’t have a perceptible impact on economic relationship between the two countries, that’s because Madrid worked hard to make sure it wouldn’t. On February 27, 2014, just 17 days after the warrants were finally issued, Rajoy’s Popular Party passed a reform in Congress to limit the use of universal jurisdiction. The prosecution against Jiang and the other officials was dismissed four months later. “I don’t know what would have happened if the problem hadn’t been solved quickly,” said the Spanish official who worked in Beijing at the time.
The Chinese state-owned, nationalistic tabloid Global Times had criticized the court case as hypocritical, pointing out that Spain “didn’t get rid of fascism until 1975” and has a “nasty history” of “colonialism, racial discrimination and persecution of left-wing forces.”
Yet the way the case was handled by Madrid reveals a global trend that has been condemned by human rights organizations worldwide and which is being felt on the ground by Chinese activists who risk their lives by speaking up against their government’s abuses. As China’s power continues to grow, more and more countries are shying away from criticizing Beijing for fear of economic retaliation.
The trend can be seen in symbolic gestures, such as the fast declining number of public condemnations on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre each year on June 4. In the past, these diplomatic denunciations rolled out by the dozens. In 2017, only two countries — the U.S. and Germany — issued a public statement.
Another sign is the shunning of the Dalai Lama. Europe had been the Tibetan spiritual leader’s most important travel destination outside India between 1991 and 2008, according to research by professors at the University of Goettingen. Nowadays, most European governments avoid direct contact with him, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
“The international community and Western countries pay less and less attention to human rights in China,” said Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer who fled the country in 2014 and is currently a visiting scholar at New York University. “The West is unwilling to offend the Chinese Communist Party,” he added. “Governments, scholars, NGOs … there’s a generalized self-censorship in regard to Chinese problems.”
Hu Jia, a Chinese dissident who spent 3-1/2 years in prison for “subversion of state power” and still suffers regular house arrests in his home in Beijing, said: “The international community is more and more afraid of criticizing the Chinese Communist Party,” because of the need for cooperation in areas like the economy, climate change, security and terrorism.
Hu, who was awarded the European Parliament Sakharov Prize for work on human rights in 2008, said people like him “feel disappointed” when Western leaders give in to Chinese pressure and “reduce mentions or even remain silent” about human rights abuses in China in their meetings with Communist officials.
“It’s not just Western countries, it’s Eastern countries and international institutions as well,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch. “China has got much more aggressive,” she said, about making threats and getting governments to “very publicly yield to that pressure.”
In Europe, Norway suffered a sharp fall in Chinese salmon imports, a freezing of trade talks and a cancelation of high-level contacts after Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
Relations between Beijing and Oslo only normalized in December 2016. Both capitals issued then a joint declaration. “The Norwegian Government fully respects China’s development path and social system, and highly commends its historic and unparalleled development,” the statement said. “The Norwegian Government … attaches high importance to China’s core interests and major concerns, will not support actions that undermine them, and will do its best to avoid any future damage to the bilateral relations.”
Liu remains the only Nobel peace prize winner to be kept behind bars.
Across the Continent, Chinese pressure has sharply curtailed coordinated criticism of Beijing’s human rights record. While human rights remains one of the EU’s foreign policy’s official priorities on China, “most member states were reluctant to raise the issue directly with Beijing,” reported the ECFR in 2016. “Most often, human rights policy was outsourced to the EU or to third parties such as the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC), or to civil society, NGOs, and media outlets throughout Europe, which unfortunately have a limited impact on Chinese policy,” it stated.
EU actions have also been undermined by division among member countries. This month, Greece blocked an EU statement at the United Nations criticizing China’s human rights record. In March, Hungary derailed the EU’s consensus to sign a joint letter about lawyers being reportedly tortured under arrest in China. Just seven member countries signed the statement: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Sweden and the U.K.
“China has often played out the states against each other,” said Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of research at the Mercator Institute for China Studies.
Civil liberties have significantly deteriorated since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
On top of that, the EU umbrella under which EU member states are taking shelter is anything but effective. The EU-China Human Rights Dialogue — initiated in 1995 — is the most important instrument that the EU uses to raise human rights concerns with China. Officials from both sides meet every two years.
The meetings have had the opposite of their intended effect, according to a book by Katrin Kinzelbach, associate director of the Global Public Policy Institute, who argues that dialogue has isolated human rights from higher-level political dialogue, thereby shielding senior Chinese representatives from criticism.
“Few, if any, of the European participants in the dialogue expect that it will lead to concrete results,” she wrote.
This week, 10 advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International asked the EU to cancel its upcoming human rights dialogue with China — set for June 22 and 23 — and to suspend the exchange until the meetings can bring genuine human rights improvements. The EU “should suspend the dialogue rather than proceed with a meaningless low-level exercise,” they wrote.
The international kowtowing to Beijing has intensified precisely at a time when pressure over human rights abuses in China is most badly needed, argue advocacy groups and Chinese activists. Civil liberties have deteriorated since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, and international pressure on particular cases has proven modestly effective in the past in addressing some of the Communist Party’s violations of human rights.
When the international community gets involved in a particular case “the penalty imposed against political prisoners may be relatively lighter and the treatment inside jail is relatively better,” said dissident Hu Jia.
Hu also distinguishes between the reluctance of foreign leaders to criticize China on sensitive issues and the work of foreign diplomats on the ground, which he praises. Foreign officials in China often meet with dissidents, try to attend courtroom hearings when they’re put on trial, raise complaints with local authorities, offer advice on draft legislation and help disseminate information worldwide about human rights violations in the country.
With less pressure from outside, however, hundreds of activists have been threatened, harassed, detained, disappeared and imprisoned in China in the past five years. The scope for activists to operate in China has dramatically been reduced under “a deliberate effort to reign in civil society,” said William Nee, a researcher for Amnesty International. Successive waves of repression have focused on areas where there was some breathing space before Xi’s mandate, like rights lawyers and labor activists.
Some also argue that Beijing’s rising power may have a perverse effect not only in China, but even abroad.
“A powerful and autocratic China will bring calamities to mankind” — Teng Biao, lawyer
China is “seeking to weaken international human rights mechanisms … and even if the governments won’t fight back on the principles and the rights of people inside China, they should understand that their own peoples’ rights are at risk as a result of China’s aggressive posture,” said Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch.
“A powerful and autocratic China will bring calamities to mankind,” said lawyer Teng Biao. “Supporting democracy and human rights in China not only corresponds to Western declared values; it will also benefit the West’s politics and economics in the long term.”
By Diego Torres