While a flurry of EU delegations pay tribute to Beijing's growing economic prowess, many still harbor reservations about China's human rights record as evidenced by Brussels' recent decision to continue the arms embargo.
French-Chinese business ties are not enough to convince all of the EU
Berlin and Paris have been vying to strengthen their economic interests in China over the last several days. Ahead of his four-day tour of China this week, French President Jacques Chirac secured some 20 contracts worth over $4 billion (€3.2 billion) in deals between French and Chinese companies.
On Monday, German Finance Minister Hans Eichel, whose country already tops the list of China's biggest trade partners with a volume of more than $42 billion in 2003, offered to increase its involvement in China's economy by providing German "know-how" for the privatization and regulation of China's growing financial and banking sector.
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, left, and EU Commission President Romano Prodi during a conference at the EU Commission May 6, 2004.
France and Germany are certainly not alone in improving business ties with the Asian powerhouse. In the past year, the European Union has focused on increasing trade and investment in China. As a bloc, the EU surpassed the United States in direct foreign investment in China for the first time in 2003. And the interest seems to be mutual, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry dubbing a new trade policy initiative "The Year of Europe."
According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), European efforts to gain more access to the Chinese market have paid off. Whereas French-based companies are on course to invest an additional $554 million in 2004, Britain is aiming for an increase of $770 million, while the Netherlands and Germany each plan to invest $1.1 billion more in China.
More than business at stake
The increased interest in business, however, has not gone unnoticed by human rights groups, who worry that Europe's new-found infatuation with Chinese investment opportunities may blind them to Beijing's poor human rights record.
A Beijing-based lobby group, Human Rights in China, criticized Chirac for failing to bring up human rights abuses during his high-profile meetings with Chinese leaders over the weekend. Instead, the French President focused on praising economic developments and reiterated his opposition to the EU arms embargo as an outdated product "of another time which does not correspond any more to the reality of the situation."
"President Chirac's remarks conveniently ignore China's obligations under international human rights law," the activist group said in a statement Monday.
Chinese paramilitary police march onto Beijing's Tiananmen Square to perform the flag raising ceremony on June 4, 2004, the 15th anniversary of the military crackdown on democracy protesters.
"Crimes against humanity such as those committed by the Nazis in World War II, under apartheid in South Africa and during the genocide in Rwanda, are not diminished or erased by the mere passage of years or even decades," said the group, which is also lobbying the EU to keep a weapons embargo in place.
Continued ban on arms trade
The weapons ban, which was imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre 15 years ago, has been a subject of much debate between Brussels and Beijing, with French President Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder endorsing its removal. Although the bloc's foreign ministers on Monday agreed to keep the embargo in place, the EU's Dutch presidency said it may be heading towards a revision of that decision in the future.
Chinesische soldiers on parade
"We hope to be able to indicate a positive orientation towards lifting," Dutch Foreign Minister Bernanrd told reporters after a meeting in Luxembourg. He said the 25-member bloc was studying in particular how to strengthen a self-imposed EU code of conduct on weapons sales, to ensure that arms were not sold for dubious purposes if the embargo were lifted.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who is in favor of removing the ban, said on Monday China had demonstrated it was on the road to improving its human rights records. It was now up to the EU, to the European Parliament and to the council of ministers to determine whether the improvements justified lifting the embargo.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose country has been one of the most reluctant to remove the ban, said earlier Monday that the EU could consider lifting the arms embargo only in a "proper and sensible way."