Beijing’s widespread crackdown on potential domestic opposition has steadily intensified since the Lhasa riots of March 2008. Human rights defenders, environmental lawyers, Christian activists and sometimes also foreigners, have increasingly become targets of the Communist Party’s efforts to implement its notion of a ‘harmonious society.’
In the beginning, some analysts explained this return to a more authoritarian approach by the Chinese leadership as stemming from nervousness about the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and wanting to create a positive international impression. When the crackdown continued, it was blamed on major national events such as the Xinjiang riots and the 60 year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic (both in 2009) and the Shanghai World Expo the following year. Yet with the 2012 leadership transition approaching but with no letup in sight, this permanent state of emergency seems to constitute the new normal in China.
This greatly worries China’s partners in Europe. Ever since the European Union and most European countries established diplomatic relations with Beijing in the 1970s, Europeans have striven to integrate China into the international community by engaging it in a wide range of areas. This engagement policy has led to a deepening of co-operation in trade, culture, education, science and technology and numerous other fields. Economic ties are particularly strong: the EU is China’s No. 1 trading partner. Europeans have also established a number of dialogues on human rights issues and supporting the rule of law in China, both on the European and member state levels.
However, Beijing’s recent crackdown and the accompanying disrespect for due legal process call this engagement strategy into question.
The current crackdown will also further exacerbate Chinese efforts to convince Europeans to lift the arms embargo, which was imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen incident. While many Chinese see the embargo as part of a broader Western containment strategy against their country, the European public, parliaments and media consider it to be a human rights issue.
In addition, last December, Beijing (over)reacted furiously to the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s decision to award the prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. This episode was particularly damaging to Europeans’ perception of China. Since then, the arrest of Ai Weiwei, one of the few Chinese artists known to a wider European public, has kept the human rights issue in the public spotlight.
Fast forward a little to today, and it’s extremely difficult to imagine that any European government might take the lead in calling for a lifting of the arms embargo. Back in the early 2000s, Europeans were still generally optimistic about the potential for future improvements in China’s human rights record and over its legal reforms. However, attempts by friendly governments in France, Germany and Italy to lift the embargo failed. This was mainly due to US pressure, but also simply because of a lack of European consensus on the issue.
The fact is that the blame for all this lies squarely with Chinese leaders, who have failed to deliver on a long-standing promise to their European partners. Unless there are improvements over human rights and respect for the rule of law, China can’t expect European minds to change.