Stars and Dragons: The EU and China - European Union Committee Contents


226.  Support for China's transition to an open society based upon the rule of law and respect for human rights is one of the main objectives of EU policy towards China[99]. The EU has sought to engage China in a structured dialogue on human rights and the rule of law, including at summit meetings. The main forum for this is the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. The UK and several other Member States also maintain bilateral human rights dialogues with the Chinese government. The EU and several Member States have carried out a range of projects in China to help improve the rule of law and support the development of civil society. The EU and its Member States also engage China on human rights through the UN. We discussed the EU arms embargo, which was imposed in response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square repression, in Chapter 4.

227.  Isabel Hilton thought that the general direction of travel in China on human rights was positive and that there had been many improvements compared to several decades ago. In the past the government used to be involved in every aspect of life, e.g. people were assigned a job, a study course[100]. However, there were areas in which there was no progress and she advocated a more robust approach by the EU (Q 127).

228.  Lord Mandelson said that the Chinese government considered human rights to be an internal matter and resisted what it saw as international interference (QQ 744-5). The Chinese position remained that it was delivering economic and collective rights, which took priority over individual rights (Dr Brown, Q 58). Nevertheless, China was gradually realising that the treatment of individuals and the freedom to report on human rights in China had to change. There was a growing realisation in China that the world had a legitimate interest in the situation there (Lord Mandelson, QQ 744-5).

229.  One of the main objectives of the EU is ratification by China of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China signed on 5 October 1998. The EU continues to press for a timetable for ratification and for reform of the Chinese legal system to ensure compliance with the Covenant. The then FCO Minister Bill Rammell MP wrote that the National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2009-2010) referred to work towards ratification in general terms. China had reported at the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue in October 2008 that it had been actively preparing for 10 years for the ratification process. However, in reality the situation was complicated by incompatibilities between Chinese legislation and the Covenant (p 271).

230.  Patrick Child (then Head of Cabinet of the Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner), stressed that despite setbacks, human rights had to remain central to the relationship with China: "We cannot ignore the very important human rights agenda because we have very important economic or commercial issues to discuss with China, and certainly that is a point that Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner has always stressed." The EU favoured comprehensive agreements with important countries like China "precisely in order to bring together different strands of the relationship, including the more difficult ones … and we must continue to make efforts in that respect" (Q 353). The EU would like to include references to human rights in the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) currently under negotiation with China (see Chapter 3). Elements of the text on human rights had been agreed but agreement on the full article was "likely to take some time yet" (Julia Longbottom, Far Eastern Group, FCO) (p 260).

231.  Riina Kionka, the EU High Representative's Personal Representative for Human Rights, said the EU sought to convince the Chinese that it was in their interest to build up the rule of law and respect for human rights as a way of modernising their country (Q 468).

232.  Michael Pulch[101] told us that the delegation had one officer working on human rights, which was not sufficient. Given its importance in the EU-China relationship, the EU Delegation in Beijing should consider increasing the number of those working on human rights. Mattias Lentz,[102] representing the then EU presidency, thought that companies operating in China could play a role in improving human rights, including through the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda.

233.  Dr Steve Tsang (Oxford University) argued that in engaging China the EU must adhere to its values, including respect for human rights. However, this did not mean that the EU should interfere in China's domestic affairs. Rather, the EU should work with the Chinese government and Chinese and international NGOs to ensure that the rights of Chinese citizens set out in the constitution were enforced. This would be on the understanding that China was free to monitor and comment on human rights protection in the EU. The EU should not incite Chinese citizens to break the law, but should give "moral support" to Chinese citizens who sought to exercise their constitutional rights (p 323).

234.  The Government recognise in their framework document on China that the UK's main influence in the area of human rights and the rule of law comes through working with others, primarily within the EU. FCO Europe Minister Chris Bryant MP commented that occasionally one Member State might take an overly conciliatory line on human rights for commercial reasons, and it was therefore important to ensure a united European voice across the full range of policy areas when dealing with China (Q 764, see also Brown Q 60).

Recent developments

235.  Dr Brown (Chatham House) wrote that for most of 2009, relations between the UK and China had been good. The UK had even become the main destination for Chinese investment in the EU. However, over a few months, China's relations with the rest of the world had deteriorated. On 28 December 2009, British citizen Akmal Shaikh had been executed by lethal injection on a drugs charge, despite over 25 representations from the British Government, including two letters from the Prime Minister to President Hu Jintao. "While an explicit link is unlikely, many in the UK, and some in China, saw the Chinese government's failure to grant clemency in this case as a direct response to the British government's open criticism of China at Copenhagen" (p 26). The EU issued a statement[103] condemning "in the strongest terms" the execution of Akmal Shaikh, and reaffirming its "absolute and longstanding opposition to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances".

236.  Dr Brown commented that the UK, and other major partners of China, had to consider seriously what their engagement had delivered over the last few years. Despite some successes, it was not clear what the UK's change of policy over Tibet, for example (see below), had achieved. China's treatment of dissidents, including Liu Xiaobo and Gao Zhisheng, had grown "increasingly harsh" in the last six months. The Chinese had cancelled the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue in January 2010 at short notice; it might be time for the Government to "review its commitment to a forum even some activists say delivers nothing except propaganda value for the Chinese" (p 27).

237.  The UK and the EU engagement strategy towards China must be robust and focused, including on human rights.

238.  We welcome the EU's rapid support for the Government's position on Akmal Shaikh. We are very disappointed that the UK and EU requests for clemency were ignored by the Chinese authorities.

239.  The EU must demonstrate much greater unity and consistency if it is to convey effective messages to the Chinese government on human rights and the rule of law. We recommend that EU Member States show greater solidarity, through public declarations if necessary, with other Member States when they come under pressure from the Chinese government on questions of human rights (see also Chapter 3).

EU projects in China

240.  James Moran (EU Commission) pointed out that building the rule of law in China was "extremely important", including as a way to promote respect for human rights, but was often overlooked because it was an arduous process. The Commission "never, ever" failed to press the importance of the rule of law in its dialogue with the Chinese (Q 354). For Isabel Hilton, the rule of law was a central aspect of the EU-China relationship. In the absence of the possibility of political action, the law was an interesting instrument. China had many statutory rights which were not defended by the state but Chinese citizens had begun to use legal redress to assert them. The EU could make more progress by working with the Chinese on technical aspects of the rule of law, than by sterile exchanges on human rights (QQ 88, 128-9).

241.  We were pleased to learn that the EU and individual Member States had done much to support China's efforts to build the rule of law; promote respect for human rights; improve capacities in the Chinese legal system; improve the penal system; educate intellectuals; and build capacity in civil society (Q 127). Professor Shambaugh (George Washington University) wrote that implementation had largely been carried out by private sector actors, albeit often funded by the EU or its Member States. "Collectively, European nations and the EU have done far more than any other country in these areas" (pp 307-8). Professor Flemming Christiansen (University of Leeds) noted that the EU's policies had helped bring about growth in local and international NGOs dealing with community-level governance and advice to citizens (p 248).

242.  Specific examples of projects include Commission support for human rights seminars to facilitate exchanges of views between European and Chinese legal experts. The EU-China Legal and Judicial Cooperation Programme to strengthen the rule of law in China was described by the then FCO Minister Bill Rammell MP as "by far the most important foreign assistance project of its kind in China" (p 271). Ms Lei Vuori (European Commission delegation in Beijing) explained that the EU-China Law School was running two major governance projects in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme[104]. The School trained judges on international law, including human rights law. She thought the School could have a major impact on a new generation of Chinese lawyers.

243.  The Commission is carrying out an impressive range of civil society, rule of law and human rights projects in China, often in partnership with Chinese civil society organisations. The UK and other Member States are also doing important and successful work in this area. We welcome these activities and believe they should be strengthened.

EU-China Human Rights Dialogue

244.  Stephen Lillie (then Far Eastern Group, FCO) stressed that the Government saw both EU and Member State human rights dialogues with China as important symbols of European concern as well as an opportunity to raise individual cases. They were also important to help China address institutional, political and legal reform (Q 12).

245.  The EU-China Human Rights Dialogue, established in 1995, takes place every six months. It covers a variety of human rights issues, spanning all the categories of rights. The EU always raises the question of the death penalty and the arbitrary detention system called "re-education through labour" (Q 460).

246.  Our witnesses were generally critical of the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. Riina Kionka, the High Representative's Personal Representative for Human Rights, expressed disappointment with progress. However, a regular and confidential dialogue was more likely to be effective than sporadic outbursts or lecturing the Chinese in public (QQ 462, 467). Dr Brown thought that the Chinese tended to listen politely but not engage in a dialogue on human rights. The Chinese government quickly became defensive and felt that its achievements—including lifting people out of poverty, creating a legal system and local village elections—were not recognised (Q 60).

247.  Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the EU-China Dialogue had become "largely a rhetorical shell, lacking in accountability, transparency, and clear benchmarks for progress". The EU had allowed China to dictate which NGOs were invited, even for meetings in Europe. The discussions were "structured to prevent frank discussions about human rights conditions inside China". Establishing connections between experts in areas such as labour law had merit but should not substitute for discussions of serious abuses. The dialogues had also suffered from a lack of high-level political effort, with the EU conveying inconsistent messages at summit meetings. The Chinese government was adept at exploiting these inconsistencies in order to undermine dialogue (pp 302-6). Lord Patten of Barnes thought that the Chinese had made no substantive change in internal human rights policy as a result of pressure from the EU (Q 553).

248.  On a more positive note, Stephen Lillie noted evidence that individuals whose cases were regularly raised by European governments, the United States or others were "ultimately progressed" (QQ 12-13). James Moran, Director for Asia in the Commission, noted that the EU had had some influence insofar as all death sentences were now reviewed in Beijing. He was convinced that with patience, the dialogue could achieve results (Q 353).

249.  Riina Kionka noted that the Chinese were increasingly raising issues of concern in the EU, such as the situation of Roma communities, which made the dialogue "more meaningful". The Chinese always reminded the EU that the dialogue should be conducted on an equal basis and in a spirit of partnership (QQ 464-466).

250.  The EU should continue to pursue a regular and confidential dialogue with China on human rights. In most cases this is likely to be more effective than public declarations or high-handed moralising. However, such a dialogue must produce results and not become a cover for inaction. If the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue fails to make significant progress, EU Member States should consider raising China's human rights record more actively in the United Nations Human Rights Council.

251.  We believe that the Chinese government should not be allowed to dictate who participates on the European side in the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue. The list of civil society participants from the European side should be drawn up by the EU, taking into account expertise on China and the issues on the agenda. The EU should also encourage China to permit the participation of a wide range of Chinese civil society organisations in the dialogue.

Promoting human rights through the United Nations

252.  Bill Rammell MP (former FCO Minister) wrote that the EU sought to work with all members of the UN Human Rights Council. China had played a role in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process by asking constructive questions in other Member States' reviews. The EU had encouraged all States to prepare rigorously for their UPR, engage independent civil society in every stage of the process, and adopt an open, self-critical approach. The Minister was satisfied that the Chinese had approached their review in February 2009 seriously but was disappointed that all recommendations proposed by EU Member States had been rejected (p 271).

253.  For Human Rights Watch, Chinese diplomats had become adept at undermining the UN's promotion of human rights. They gave examples of China's attempts to weaken the Human Rights Council's procedures. China had also often blocked UN Security Council resolutions on sanctions. However, China had responded more positively on Darfur and the Middle East, issues on which the EU had engaged China at the highest levels (see Chapter 4) (pp 304-6).

254.  Stephen Lillie told us that the international community had expanded its dialogue with China on international issues, but in general China did not favour sanctions and would always emphasise dialogue (Q 21). On Burma (see Chapter 4), the Chinese had concluded that the military junta was more likely to provide stability than any democratic elections. They had, however, tried to encourage political change "in a quiet way" (Lord Patten of Barnes, Q 560).

255.  We are concerned that China may be undermining the efforts of the United Nations to protect and promote human rights worldwide. While China has responded more positively than in the past to high-level EU engagement on human rights violations in Darfur and the Middle East, it has also blocked some UN Security Council resolutions entailing targeted sanctions against gross human rights offenders such as the military junta in Burma and the regime in Zimbabwe. The EU should press the case that, as a member of the United Nations, China has a duty to respect and promote human rights; but also that respect for human rights around the world is a cornerstone of stability and human development and is therefore in China's long-term interest.

Tibet and Xinjiang

256.  Western China has an entirely different composition to eastern China. At the foundation of the PRC in 1949 there were few ethnic Chinese (Han) in these areas and they had been largely self-governing since 1911. On the establishment of the PRC, Tibet and Xinjiang were designated autonomous regions indicating that their distinctiveness would be guaranteed in the constitution. The EU Member States all recognise these areas as Chinese sovereign territory; but the way that the Chinese government has handled political incorporation and economic opening has led to rising opposition to Beijing's policies and a potential for inter-ethnic violence.

257.  Isabel Hilton said that Tibet and Xinjiang were areas of tension. Tibet was effectively under military occupation. Xinjiang, with its mostly Sunni population with a strong Sufi influence, was tightly controlled by the Chinese authorities. There had been long-running discontent which was of concern to the government (QQ 97-99, 134-136). The EU does not currently have a policy on Tibet or Xinjiang agreed by the Member States, but it has issued statements[105].


258.  There have been several cases of unrest in Tibet in recent years. For example, in March 2008, in advance of the Olympic Games in Beijing, there were riots and protests in Lhasa and other parts of Tibet[106]. (For historical background on Tibet see Appendix 9.)

259.  Isabel Hilton thought that there was "widespread and justified discontent" in Tibet which could be resolved if the Chinese government adopted a more "enlightened" approach. The Chinese government had recently issued a White Paper on Tibet which downplayed the problems. In 2008 the Chinese government had blamed the Dalai Lama, maintaining that Tibet was making great economic progress within the embrace of the motherland; and that the trouble in Tibet was instigated by foreign powers with the intention of damaging China and encouraging "splitism". These were "extremely weak" arguments. The administration in Lhasa was the most politically reactionary part of the Chinese state. The EU could play a role by supporting a "one country, two systems" solution, an approach which had worked well in Hong Kong. The EU should also point out to the Chinese that the Dalai Lama was a moderate and effective interlocutor who represented all Tibetans and that China should therefore seek a negotiated settlement with him (Q 134).

260.  The Office of Tibet[107] commented that the Chinese government's approach had been "cultural genocide" against anything "Tibetan". Tibetans had become a minority in their own country and were subjected to "racial discrimination" by the Chinese. The Tibetan language was being made redundant and Tibet's natural resources were exploited. The repression experienced by Tibetans was like "hell on earth". In order to resolve the issue, the Dalai Lama had renounced the Tibetan people's right to an independent state and agreed that Tibet could remain within the PRC to help maintain unity and stability, despite the dubious nature of China's historical claim to Tibet. The EU should urge China to:

  • invite impartial international bodies to investigate who instigated the 2008 uprisings in Tibet;
  • open all Tibetan areas to independent monitors and the international media;
  • release all Tibetan political prisoners of conscience. All detained Tibetans must have access to independent lawyers and the right to lodge complaints, in an atmosphere free of reprisal and harassment (pp 318-20).

261.  The European Parliament, in a resolution of 10 April 2008 on Tibet[108], condemned the "brutal repression visited by the Chinese security forces on Tibetan demonstrators and all acts of violence from whichever source". The Parliament criticised the "often discriminatory treatment of non-Han Chinese ethnic minorities", and called on China to "honour its commitments to human and minority rights and the rule of law". The resolution called for a UN inquiry into the 2008 riots and repression in Tibet and for a constructive dialogue "without preconditions" between the Chinese authorities and the Dalai Lama, as well as the appointment of a special EU envoy for Tibetan issues.

262.  Dr Brown said that the UK Government had recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet in November 2008, whereas previously it had only recognised Chinese suzerainty. These changes meant that all EU Member States now recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. The EU could be tougher on China over Tibet and, in particular, argue that unrest in Tibet damaged China's international image. However, the Chinese leadership regarded sovereignty not as a legal but as a moral issue. The Chinese government wanted western leaders to affirm not just that the Chinese had the legal right to be in Tibet but that they had a moral right. Western and Chinese leaders were "talking different languages" in relation to this issue (QQ 60, 71). It was a particular problem for the EU because in the eyes of the Chinese Tibet was associated with Europe rather than the United States (Q 60). (See also Chapter 3.)

263.  For Professor Godement, there was no reason for the EU to give priority to the Tibet issue. Several European countries had adjusted their Tibet policy significantly in 2008. The French had made a declaratory statement which recognised Chinese territorial integrity and that Tibet was part of China (Q 587).

264.  FCO Minister Ivan Lewis MP set out the Government's policy on Tibet in October 2009[109]. The UK had an interest in long-term stability in Tibet, which could be achieved through respect for human rights and greater autonomy for Tibetans. The UK's change in policy on Tibet had enabled it to exert significant influence over the Chinese government. Minister for Europe Chris Bryant MP told us that no country in Europe would abandon the issue of Tibet, but that the way to raise it was with "steadiness and resolve" rather than by "sudden grandstanding" (Q 789).

265.  Representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese authorities met on 26 January 2010[110], but no progress was made on substantive issues. This was the ninth round of dialogue and the first visit for 15 months in the process that began in 2002.

266.  At a high-level meeting on 18-20 January 2010 attended by President Hu Jintao, Chinese leaders agreed plans to "accelerate development" in the Tibet Autonomous Region[111]. They said that greater efforts had to be made to improve the living standards of the people in Tibet, as well as ethnic unity and stability.

267.  Tibet is an extremely sensitive issue for the Chinese government and one that it perceives as a threat to national unity and territorial integrity. However, there is evidence that there have been grave violations of human rights in Tibet, which we deplore.

268.  The issue of Tibet needs to be handled carefully by the EU and its Member States. A regular, constructive dialogue between the Chinese authorities and Tibetan representatives is the only way a long-term solution can be found. We welcome the resumption of talks between representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese authorities.

269.  The EU should call on China to pursue the dialogue with representatives of the Dalai Lama in a spirit of compromise and mutual respect. The EU should seek to persuade China that respecting human rights in Tibet is a legal and moral obligation; and that fair treatment of all Tibetans will help rather than hinder China's long-term stability and unity. The EU should continue to raise the issue of Tibet in its human rights dialogue with China.

270.  China has attempted to pressure individual EU leaders to discourage them from meeting with the Dalai Lama. EU Member States must coordinate their approach and show solidarity with each other in resisting this pressure.


271.  In July 2009, inter-ethnic rioting erupted in Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xinjiang, leading to several hundred deaths. (For historical background on Xinjiang see Appendix 9.) The apparent trigger for these events was media reports that Uyghurs migrant labourers had been killed in street violence in eastern Guangdong province. The Chinese government attributed the events to "internal and external forces of terrorism, splitism and extremism"[112]. This resulted in a new wave of detentions, prosecutions, and sentencing in the region, including death sentences. It was against this background of intensive security measures in Xinjiang, that the UK citizen, Akmal Shaikh, was executed for drug offences in December 2009 (see paragraph 237 above).

272.  Scott Wightman of the FCO told us that the Chinese government had shown "selective deafness" in interpreting statements by western governments during the riots. The UK and the EU had condemned the violence and stated that there was no justification for the extremist attacks on innocent people. They had also called for the rights of the detainees to be respected. The Chinese had been surprised by the underlying problems in Xinjiang, and were unsure how to deal with them. The UK and EU were looking for ways to help the Chinese address some of the underlying tensions that had led to the violence (Q 796).

273.  The UK and the EU were right to condemn the violence in Urumqi in July 2009. We also welcome their efforts to assist the Chinese in searching for ways to address the underlying problems that affect Xinjiang.

274.  China plays an important role in the countries and regions bordering Xinjiang, including Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. China and the EU have common interests there, not least security and economic development. However, the EU should not temper concerns about human rights and ethnic tensions in Xinjiang in exchange for China's cooperation on fighting terrorism and insurgency in Central and Southwest Asia (see also Chapter 4).

99   See: Back

100   Meeting with Frank Ching, Hong Kong-based journalist, Appendix 4. Back

101   Chargé d'Affaires at the EU delegation in Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

102   Chargé d'Affaires at Sweden's embassy in Beijing, Appendix 4. Back

103   Declaration by the Presidency on behalf of the EU on the execution of Akmal Shaikh, Brussels, December 2009. Back

104   Roundtable on human rights, Beijing, 22 July, Appendix 4. Back

105   For example, the Declarations by the Presidency dated 29 October 2009 and 12 November 2009. Back

106   House of Commons Library standard note, 20 March 2009. There were divergent interpretations of what had caused the disturbances, with the Chinese saying that Tibetans had started the violence with attacks on Chinese inhabitants in Lhasa, alleging that about 20 people died. Supporters of the Tibetan cause focused on the repressive response of the authorities, with over a thousand Tibetans being detained, and claimed that up to 200 people had been killed. Amnesty International described Tibetan protests as "largely peaceful" and spoke of a subsequent "lock-down" in Tibet. For Amnesty's June 2008 report, see: Back

107   The official agency of the Dalai Lama for northern Europe, Poland and the Baltic States, based in London. Back

108   P6_TA(2008)0119. Back

109   House of Commons Official Report (Hansard), 20 October 2009, columns 759 & 764. Back

110   Statement by FCO Minister Ivan Lewis MP, 25 January 2010. Back

111   Chinese state news agency (Xinhua), 22 January 2010. "China to achieve leapfrog development, lasting stability in Tibet". Back

112   White Paper on Xinjiang published by the State Council of the People's Republic of China, September 2009. Xinjiang de fazhan he jinbu [Xinjiang's development and progress] PRC, Central People's Government. Available at Back

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