French President Nicolas Sarkozy must hope that his state visit last week to Beijing and Shanghai, his second since becoming president, yields better results than his first one. Shortly after that trip, in November 2007, Sino-French political relations quickly soured over Tibet and other disputes.
On this occasion, though, his meetings appear to have gone well (indeed, Sarkozy received more Chinese leadership attention than the high-level European Union delegation that also visited China last week) and there appears to have been an upturn in bilateral relations since the low of two years ago, when the French president aroused Chinese anger by attacking Beijing’s March 2008 security crackdown in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The following month, pro-Tibet demonstrators and other human rights activists concerned about China’s policies in Darfur and elsewhere disrupted the Olympic torch relay as it passed through Paris.
These protests, which were followed by others as the torch moved across the globe, garnered international attention and embarrassed Beijing organizers of the Games, who confronted worldwide calls to boycott the ‘Genocide Olympics.’ In response, many Chinese responded by boycotting French goods, with the most notable victim being French-owned retail chain Carrefour, whose major shareholder, the LVMH Group, was accused of donating funds to the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government declined, however, to annul previous contracts to purchase French nuclear power plants and other big ticket items.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Beijing did cancel a EU-China summit scheduled for December 2008 after Sarkozy met in Poland with the Dalai Lama (France then held the rotating six-month presidency of the EU), who Chinese authorities accuse of inspiring the separatist unrest that March and seeking to split Tibet from the rest of the People’s Republic of China.
When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao toured Europe in January 2009, he visited Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Britain, and the European Union headquarters in Brussels, but purposefully avoided France. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu stated at a press briefing in February that year that ‘the responsibility of the current difficulty in Sino-French relations does not lie with the Chinese side. The French side should actively take specific measures (and) bring about an early return to the normal track in Sino-French relations through positive efforts.’
Sarkozy subsequently labored hard to patch up bilateral relations, using opportunities to engage Chinese leaders at the various multilateral meetings, such as those of the United Nations and the Group of Twenty. Sarkozy also adopted a less confrontational stand toward the Chinese in public, declining to attack Beijing vigorously for its crackdown in Xinjiang after ethnic violence between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in July 2009, centered in the province’s capital of Urumqi, killed almost 200 people. He also didn’t confront Beijing over the alleged Chinese-based cyber espionage conducted against European governments and companies, among others.
Even before the latest trip, there was evidence of progress. In February of this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi included France on his European itinerary, along with Britain, Cyprus, Germany, and Turkey. In Paris, Yang met with Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Yang also gave a speech at the French Institute for International Relations, in which he said 2010 could see major positive developments in Chinese-French relations and that his government was prepared to elevate bilateral ties to a new height.