Brussels, April 2017 – In her recent visit to Beijing, the EU Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini focused on global cooperation between the EU and China in Syria, North Korea, and Afghanistan, and on issues such as trade and climate change. But she missed an important opportunity to emphasize human rights issues including the situation in Tibet and Xinjiang more prominently – which would have signaled an approach that adds weight to the EU’s negotiating position and is also consistent with the concerns of European Parliamentarians and citizens.
European Parliamentarians demonstrated the importance of this approach in December 2016 with the adoption of an ‘urgency resolution’ on China. This resolution, which denounced the destruction of the Tibetan Buddhist Institute of Larung Gar and the life imprisonment of Uyghur professor Ilham Tothi, also deplored the fact that there was no EU-China Human Rights Dialogue at all in 2016, despite the fact that President Tusk announced after the 17th EU-China Summit in Beijing that both sides agreed to have a new round of talk in Brussels later in the year. At this stage, there is no indication of any new round planned in 2017; and yet Chinese President Xi Jinping is currently presiding over the most eviscerating crackdown on civil society in a generation.
The establishment of the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue in 1995 created a shift from direct confrontation (including at the UN level) to engagement through talks behind closed doors, largely kept confidential. As observed by analyst Katrin Kinzelbach, such discussions have effectively served as training of Chinese officials on how to effectively counter human rights related criticism, and have provided a forum for the Chinese authorities to develop a legal language that often bears no resemblance to reality.
In recent years, the Chinese government has also sought to undermine this forum for discussion, cutting the number of dialogues from two to one per year. The legal Human Rights Seminars bringing together representatives of civil society and academics were stopped, and China unilaterally decided not to even officially accept lists of political prisoners submitted by the EU and refuse to give details on any of these cases.
Nevertheless, we believe that it remains an important channel of communication and engagement that keeps human rights on the table for discussion and accords it a level of priority, which is today deeply needed.
Since the last dialogue in 2015, the Chinese government has indeed further curtailed a wide range of fundamental human rights, including freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion. In Tibet, repression has intensified; at the beginning of January this year for example, it announced an expansion of border regulations in the area, reportedly aimed at combating the risk of ‘terrorism’ in the region. However, in the absence of any violent insurgency in Tibet, it is likely that this move was in fact aimed at preventing Tibetans from traveling to India to attend the Kalachakra, a major religious ceremony given by the Dalai Lama, rather than improving security in the area.
The recent demolitions at the Tibetan Buddhist Institute of Larung Gar, where over 3,000 monks and nuns have been expelled, is yet another sign of China’s determination to suppress the religious life and culture of Tibetans. The enactment of a package of sweeping national security laws (including a Counter-Terrorism Law and a Cyber Security Law) allowing for the criminal prosecution of virtually any manifestation of religious and cultural belief, risks further exacerbating this already extremely tense situation. By conflating any criticism or dissent with threats to national security, these laws also create a dangerous environment for those Tibetans who wish to exercise their fundamental rights, such as Tashi Wangchuk, an advocate for Tibetan language education who was imprisoned last year. These continued repressive policies have led two more Tibetans to set themselves ablaze this spring, bringing the number of Tibetan self-immolators since February 2009 to 148.
Human rights in China and Tibet matter to us in Europe, but taking a strong position on this issue is in the interests of the EU too, in order to challenge the Chinese leadership’s efforts to export its methods of censorship and authoritarianism to Europe. European member states must now tackle thorny questions about whether their softer approach has contributed to Beijing’s aggressive diplomacy and quest to subvert and undermine any criticism of its rights record. Experienced China hands understand that the Beijing leadership will seek to enforce compliance with its own agenda during dialogues, amplifying issues that are less important in order to compel concessions elsewhere.
In July 2016, the EU Council endorsed the Elements for a new EU Strategy on China, a joint communication of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the European Commission mapping out the European Union’s relationship with China for the next five years. This document, which states that “the promotion of human rights will continue to be a core part of the EU’s engagement with China”, clearly provides that the EU should regularly review the outcomes of the dialogues it holds with China to ensure their effectiveness.
It is now high time for the EU to turn these well-meaning declarations into action. The EU and its member states must pursue a more ambitious, united and transparent policy with regard to human rights in China that is part of a larger strategy for change, and insist on maintaining a regular, high-level and result-oriented human rights dialogue. We are also convinced that the degradation of human rights in Tibet must be systematically raised at each EU-China Summit including the need to resume a meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama’s representatives and we call President Tusk to do so at the 19th EU-China Summit to be held in Brussels on 2 June.
The Members of the European Parliaments,
Surname and Name (Group)
 Katrin Kinzelbach, The EU’s Human Rights Dialogue with China: Quiet Diplomacy and its Limits, Routledge, 2014.