In March 2014, the Chinese President Xi Jinping travelled to Europe on his first official visit since formally becoming President and Party Secretary in 2013. Diplomatic relations between the EU and China were established almost forty years ago. Today China has become the EU’s largest source of imports and the EU is China’s biggest trading partner.
When visiting The Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium, Xi Jinping was welcomed as the President of the Chinese market rather than leader of the Chinese people.
Chinese people include an ever-increasing number of citizens who are prepared to challenge authorities. Civil society groups and advocates continue to slowly expand their work despite their precarious status. However, treatment of human rights defenders has considerably worsened in recent years. The Chinese government justifies this as a means to pursue social stability. Countless examples can be cited, from Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo – whose 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony I attended on behalf of the European Parliament – to Tibetan abbot Khenpo Kartse, from civil society activist Cao Shunli to Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, from human rights defender Xu Zhiyong to Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser. The list is endless.
Since the Xi Jinping administration assumed power in March 2013, human rights conditions have deteriorated rather than improved with a further decline in freedom of expression, assembly and association. Internet and media controls have become more systematic.
In Tibet the Chinese government continues to restrict the rights of the Tibetan people through a deepening crackdown and an intensified militarisation as well as a strict control of their cultural life and the parameters of religious practice. This has led to a massive wave of self-immolations in Tibet since February 2009.
The European Union is currently deepening its economic ties with China. Negotiations of the first bilateral EU-China Investment Agreement started in January 2014. However, EU leaders should ensure that the values for which the EU is recognized as a global leader are not sidelined in this agreement, and that binding human rights, social and environmental clauses are included.
One of the objectives of the first EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy adopted in 2012 was the establishment of a unified EU approach towards mainstreaming human rights in the EU’s external action.
However, this has not happened in its relations with China. Instead of strengthening its position on human rights in China, the EU has been gradually weakening it and its action is now merely limited to occasional, rhetorical statements.
Two critical issues were outlined in it: the handling of Tibet-related issues and the EU-China human rights dialogue. China once again stated that EU member states should not allow the Dalai Lama – a fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, like the EU – and his representatives to visit the EU and engage in meetings with EU or member states’ officials, as this would be considered “facilitation or support of anti-China separatist activities.” It also explicitly stated that it would no longer accept lists of prisoners’ individual cases, as this would be considered interference in its judicial sovereignty and internal affairs.
What made it possible for China to finally put this in black and white is the lack of an EU common approach towards human rights in China and a clear, unified EU position on the question of Tibet and on meetings with the Dalai Lama and other representatives of the Tibetan movement.
The EU’s leverage is its structure made of 28 member states and the EU institutions. As long as it keeps lacking a common approach, China will continue exploiting the EU’s internal divisions.
Recent high-level meetings between EU leaders and Xi Jinping have been the umpteenth missed opportunity for the EU to express public concern about the human rights situation in China and Tibet and to push for some concrete improvements.. It is also regrettable that the EU was not able to convince Xi Jinping to participate in a public press conference besides his closed-door meetings with President Barroso and President Van Rompuy.
China still allows the EU to hold an annual human rights dialogue but de factoturns it into a useless exercise, which has not delivered any concrete results on the ground.
Moreover, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis was the first EU official to be allowed to visit Tibet in September 2013. So far, the EU has made no proper follow up on the findings of his mission. I was the first politician to visit Tibet after a three-year freeze by Beijing, in 1996, and the dire human rights situation I observed has considerably worsened.
I am one of the initiators and signatories of the pledge “2014 for Tibet” by International Campaign for Tibet, as I refuse to brush aside ongoing human rights violations in Tibet. It is essential that the next European Parliament keeps insisting that the EU consistently addresses human rights abuses anywhere in the world, including Tibet and China, and does not shy away from bringing it up with major trade partners.
The EU cannot sacrifice its history and the values on which it is founded in the name of economic interests and trade relations.
Moreover, we have clear signs that European citizens’ priorities go way beyond trade and business in our relationship with China. A recent survey by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP), published by the International Campaign for Tibet, illustrates that an overwhelming majority of citizens from two of the biggest EU member states – France and Germany – express solidarity with Tibetans and concern over the lack of respect for their human rights and civil liberties, and call on their leaders to invite the Dalai Lama for an official visit.
Recently, China has even been able to export its repressive measures to the EU, as the illegal arrests and detentions of peacefully demonstrating Tibetans and Tibet supporters in Bruges, Belgium suggests. Not only did the Belgian authorities fail to meaningfully engage with Xi Jinping on human rights issues, but they also violated those very rights in their own territory. Once again this proved that an authoritarian state such as China is a threat to democracy and freedom everywhere, not only within its own borders.
After Europe experienced the horrors of World War II, a unified European project was forged; a project based on values that rejected the human rights violations which had been perpetrated during the war, with the objective of leaving them forever behind. Recent European history proves that this project has been a guarantee to maintain peace and social progress. We cannot afford to compromise on these values, which secured us life in our free societies.
On 1 May 2014 the EU celebrated the 10th anniversary of many Eastern European countries’ accession to the EU. Only 30 years ago this seemed impossible. The restoration of independence and freedom in these countries was a dream, which was not even contemplated. Having experienced half a century of communist rule and foreign occupation as part of its history, the EU has a tremendous responsibility in ensuring that Tibet’s struggle does not go forgotten.
With the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and of the imposition of martial law in Tibet approaching, it is essential that the EU reflects upon the reasons that led to the arms embargo on China and steps up its focus on human rights in China and Tibet.
In times of economic stagnation China may be the EU’s most suitable business partner, but if our focus on trade means turning a blind eye to gross human rights violations, it will be a shallow victory for the EU.
 EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy available at:https://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/131181.pdf
 Full text of the document avaialable at:http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-04/02/c_133230788.htm
 2014 for Tibet: http://www.2014fortibet.eu
 IFOP, Two-way perspective from French and Germans about the China and Tibet situation: http://www.savetibet.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Two-way-perspective-from-French-and-Germans-about-the-China-and-Tibet-situation.pdf
 International Campaign for Tibet, Illegal detentions of protestors in Belgium during the visit of Chinese president:http://www.savetibet.org/illegal-detentions-of-protestors-in-belgium-during-the-visit-of-chinese-president/