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EU, China relaunch human rights talks amid tensions

Priyanka Shankar in Brussels
February 17, 2023

Rights groups have slammed the dialogue, labeling it "meaningless," but the EU says it is important "to have a frank discussion."

Flags of China and the European Union stand at the Chancellery in Berlin
EU and Chinese officials have spent the past year trying to figure out how to improve their tiesImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The European Union and China on Friday resumed talks focusing on human rights at a meeting in Brussels, two years after they stalled following rounds of tit-for-tat sanctions.   

Relations between both sides have been icy since March 2021, when the EU levied sanctions on four Chinese government officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang province and Beijing retaliated by sanctioning 10 individuals and 4 entities in the EU, including members of the European Parliament and of the European Council's Political and Security Committee. 

The decision to resume the dialogue was taken at the EU-China Summit in April 2022.

After meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping last December, European Council President Charles Michel said restarting the talks was "an important signal."

"Human rights are universal. I welcome the readiness to resume the EU-China human rights dialogue," he said in a statement.

Is the dialogue meaningless?

But rights groups have slammed the talks, labeling them "meaningless."

"It is not a real dialogue, because it is ineffective, and because it is counterproductive," Claudio Francavilla, senior EU advocate at Human Rights Watch, told DW.

"It's a box-ticking exercise, held with no expectation that the concerns and recommendations expressed there will be positively received and translated into any concrete policy change," he added.

"In fact, its only practical effect is relieving leaders from the 'burden' of having to meaningfully discuss human rights during summits and other high-level engagements."

Former Uyghur detainees of internment camps

Both EU and Chinese officials have spent the past year trying to figure out how to improve their ties.

A number of EU leaders, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, visited Beijing last year and China's top foreign policy official Wang Yi is currently in Europe visiting Russia and four EU countries: France, Germany, Italy and Hungary.

Wang is also expected to speak at the Munich Security Conference, an annual event bringing together security experts and politicians, military leaders and the defense industry from around the world.

Calls for more sanctions on Beijing

Reinhard Butikofer of the Green Party, who chairs the European Parliament's delegation for relations with China, welcomed in-person engagements to boost ties, although he stressed that when it comes to EU-China human rights talks, it is a "dialogue of the deaf."

He said the EU should, instead of trying to placate Beijing, impose more sanctions on Chinese officials for abusing human rights in Xinjiang, rolling back rights in Hong Kong, restricting fundamental rights in Tibet, cracking down on human rights defenders within the country and also curtailing the fundamental freedoms of women and girls.

"I haven't seen much progress made through this human rights dialogue and the Chinese side has signaled that they want to use the dialogue to quash public criticism," Butikofer, who has also been sanctioned by Beijing, underlined.

"Basically, they're signaling to European leaders, if you want to have a human rights dialogue, you should not be publicly critical of what we do."

The EU's foreign affairs spokesperson, Nabila Massrali, told DW that the EU and China have different views on human rights, and this is exactly why the dialogue is important, "to have a frank discussion."

China's President Xi Jinping (L) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speak via video-conference with European Council President and European Union foreign policy chief during an EU China summit at the European Council building in Brussels, on April 1, 2022
The decision to resume the human rights dialogue was taken at the EU-China Summit in April 2022Image: Olivier Matthys/AFP

Sanctions speak 'louder than words'

Rights groups accuse Beijing of violating the rights of Uyghurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority of around 10 million people in Xinjiang, including the mass use of forced labor in internment camps. The United States has accused China of genocide.

The Chinese government's actions in the province "may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity," according to a 2022 UN report.

Koen Stoop, the EU representative and policy coordinator at the World Uyghur Congress, urged Brussels to impose more sanctions rather than hold talks with Chinese officials.

Pointing out that the human rights situation in Xinjiang has worsened over the past five years, he said EU sanctions against Chinese authorities "will speak louder than words" for the Uyghur community.

The EU also came under sharp criticism recently following the announcement of a trip to Paris and Brussels by Erkin Tuniyaz, the governor of Xinjiang. 

Amid outrage from rights groups and some lawmakers, the trip has been canceled.

Tuniyaz has defended Chinese policies in Xinjiang, including the use of detention facilities.

He was sanctioned by the US in 2021, but not yet by the EU.

"I think it's to do with political will mostly because of the negative effect that the previous 2021 sanctions have had on the EU-China relationship," Stoop said, adding: "But given the urgency of the human rights situation in China, the EU should develop a tougher stance."

In addition to sanctions, Brussels is also considering a proposed ban on products made using forced labor, which, if passed, could force European companies to end their economic engagement with Xinjiang. 

"The EU should ensure the adoption of robust legislation because it would significantly hamper the possibility to continue the business-as-usual approach with China, where Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are reportedly subject to forced labor as part of the government's abusive policies," said HRW's Francavilla.

Is China seeking a fresh start with the EU?

Chinese government officials have lambasted the UN report, describing it as "a farce" and saying that "respecting and protecting human rights is a basic principle enshrined in the Constitution of China."

Over the past year, Chinese officials in the West have also raised the prospect of easing the tensions and lifting the sanctions, in an effort to ensure that trade and other business agreements are not impacted. 

Butikofer believes that the planned and now-scrapped visit by the Xinjiang governor was an attempt by China to try and have a fresh start with the EU. 

He noted that despite being canceled for now, Beijing could announce the trip again.

At an event organized by the European Policy Centre in Brussels on February 8, Fu Cong, the head of the Chinese mission to the EU, called for resolving both sides' differences over human rights through talks.

He also stressed that these differences should not affect other aspects of the relationship. 

For Francavilla, this is an easy pass to try and build back good relations with the EU.

"If all Beijing has to suffer in order to cozy up with the EU and talk trade, business and cooperation, is sending some of its diplomats to be yelled at in a closed-door meeting for a day, they'll do that eagerly," he said. 

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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