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The EU-China Human Rights Dialogue Should Change Its Course

October 29, 2010

HRIC Senior Policy Advisor suggests ways to improve a process that has yielded no concrete results after 12 years.

Translated by Dušanka Miščević

The historical background of the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue begins with the 1989 June Fourth crackdown, which prompted the European Union to impose an embargo on arms sales to China and demanded that China improve its human rights conditions and engage in an ongoing dialogue regarding human rights. Anxious to break out of its diplomatic predicament at the time, and mindful of its strategic relations with the EU, China had no choice but to agree. But the Chinese government was not sincere, and used the dialogue as window dressing to deal with international public opinion. Or, as the Chinese saying goes, it was like the ears of a deaf man—mere decoration.

On the surface, the Chinese government agreed to hold the human rights dialogue, but it placed a stranglehold around the dialogue beforehand by taking issue with the agenda and rules and by setting up all sorts of restrictions. For instance, it insisted that the dialogue agenda be negotiated in advance, that its procedures be kept strictly confidential, and that it be bilateral so as to prevent coordination among the participating countries. The Chinese government also stipulated that non-governmental organizations could not take part in the dialogue, etc. In fact, China dug a pit for the EU to fall into. The EU has been completely led by the nose when it comes to what topics can be discussed and who can attend. If the EU differs, China simply threatens to pull out of the dialogue.

Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue has not made any headway over the years.

One could say that carrying on the dialogue with China has become “chicken ribs” for the EU—tasteless when you chew on them, yet a pity to throw away. Not only has the dialogue failed to improve the human rights conditions in China, on the contrary, it has turned into a shield for the Chinese government to defend itself. On the one hand, the Chinese authorities are molding an image of an emerging great power to the outside world; on the other, they are using the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue domestically to dupe their own people. For instance, during the 2010 EU-China Human Rights Dialogue in Madrid, the official Chinese media declared on the internet that “the EU representatives positively assessed the new progress China has made in the human rights sphere.”1 This show really must not go on. The time has come for the EU to change its course.

The EU-China Human Rights Dialogue should develop a new strategy. The EU should be talking directly to Chinese civil society and build strategic collaborative relations with NGOs in China. At the same time, the official dialogue should become more transparent and open. In its contact with Chinese academic circles, the EU should emphasize establishing links with China’s intellectuals who are unaffiliated with the government, rather than with official scholars.

One other point: many Westerners believe that academic circles in China are independent from the government, as they are in the West. This is because they really don’t understand China. There, the wide web woven by the Communist Party of China (CPC) is omnipresent. From my personal experience, whenever an individual leaves China on private business, not to mention officially organized delegations traveling abroad, the CPC requires that person to abide by disciplinary rules and make frequent ideological reports back to the CPC. For example, before I came to visit my relatives in the U.S. some years ago, the CPC secretary of my institution summoned me for a chat. He asked me to follow the disciplinary rules and to make regular reports back to the Party. Also, when I was at Harvard, my roommate was a visiting scholar from the Guangdong Province Planning Commission. He told me that state security also called him in before he left the country and asked him to do things to help the homeland while he was abroad. He had no choice but to agree at the time, or else he wouldn’t have gotten his passport.

The demands on Chinese official delegations are even stricter. The official delegations are led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, officials from various relevant departments and committees, as well as academic experts and scholars. Before they go abroad, they undergo special training, are informed of the disciplinary rules, and given explicit assignments. After they come back, they have to attend meetings to summarize their experiences. Those who say the wrong things never get another chance to go abroad. Westerners usually think that Chinese scholars are independent like Western scholars, but the truth is they are not. In China, though they may be university professors or research institute scholars, they are all inside the system and depend on the government for their livelihood. There can be no independent scholars inside the system; in public or official settings, there can only be the mouthpieces of the government. In recent years the techniques of the Chinese government have become ever more refined. On many issues, government officials no longer show their face. Instead, it is the experts and scholars who come out to say what the officials want to be said. This is why the EU should strengthen links with China’s independent scholars who are unaffiliated with the government, and engage not only with those who are official scholars.


“Ou-meng diaobiao jiji pingjia Zhongguo zai renquan lingyu qude de xin jinzhan” [欧盟代表积极评价中国在人权领域取得的新进展], The Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China [中华人民共和国中央人民政府], July 1, 2010, ^

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