4 May 2021

MP Open Call #8 – Policymakers Discuss Human Rights and European Trade Relations with China

Should European countries continue trade relations with China as it commits human rights violations? This question was at the forefront of discussion as nine parliamentarians from our network joined the call – involved were perspectives from Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.

Parliamentarians from the Open European Dialogue network continue to place China on the agenda of the MP Open Calls. This time, they grappled with the question of whether their parliaments should continue to deal economically with a country that does not share their values. While they agreed that China and Europe are deeply intertwined economically, what this means for Europe’s future relationship with the economic giant was up for discussion.

Participants first discussed Europe’s reactions to the human rights violations committed by the Chinese government. In light of recent developments in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, some participants questioned why European countries are not pushing for human rights stipulations in their trade agreements with China.  Without doing so, from their perspective, Europeans will be ineffective in dealing with China’s undemocratic actions and human rights violations. Other participants pushed back on this line of argument and the notion that human rights stipulations be included in current and future trade deals with China. As they are independent fields, one could trade with China while also condemning and pushing back on the human rights abuse at the hands of the Chinese government.

As the conversation continued, participants shared the notion that criticism of China is often held back due to its economic power. China is now at the center of the world economy and has a history of playing on economic dependencies to pressure its closely-linked trading partners politically. In this context, European countries often try to balance criticizing China with ensuring it stays a friendly business partner.

Whether or not participants agreed that human rights be put at the forefront of trade deals with China, they agreed that Europe’s economic entanglement with China further complicates matters. Participants pointed to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a cautionary example. Although much-discussed in general, it is still unclear as to what the ultimate geopolitical goal of the BRI is and whether China is close to achieving it. As part of the BRI, China has signed infrastructure investment agreements and has successfully crafted a web of varying influence in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Initiatives like these – participants said – make it difficult for Europe to form a uniform and thereby more impactful stance towards China.

Parliamentarians warned that Europe should avoid a one-sided economic dependency with China if it wishes to push back on Chinese political pressure and more effectively take a stand against its human rights violations.

At the same time, they pointed out, an economic decoupling from China is virtually impossible and increases the risk of competition and conflict between the two powers. Europe has economic soft power of its own that can influence Chinese policy in key areas – a united front here could still change Chinese-European power dynamics.

As the call ended, the question on how Europe should proceed with China on the issues of human rights and trade remained open for further discussion.

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