The Debate

China Pressures Europe to Stay Silent on Human Rights

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The Debate

China Pressures Europe to Stay Silent on Human Rights

China’s attempts to export its censorship and authoritarianism raise serious questions for all European countries.

China Pressures Europe to Stay Silent on Human Rights
Credit: Tiananmen Square image via ben bryant /

China’s belligerent diplomacy in Europe has been in the spotlight this week after a German lawmaker who chairs the Bundestag’s Human Rights Committee was refused access to China after he criticized rights violations in Tibet. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said he was “not welcome” because of his support for “Tibetan independence.”

German Christian Democrat politician Michael Brand, who had intended to travel with the Parliamentary Committee to Tibet in late May, was robust in his response to the visa ban when he said: “We can’t just accept it when authoritarian regimes like China, Russia or Turkey carry out censorship and oppression, certainly not if they want to export these methods — and to Germany too. When it comes to human rights, pussyfooting around doesn’t pay off. Human rights are not an internal affair of the state of China.”

China’s attempts to export its methods of censorship and authoritarianism raise serious questions for all European countries about whether their approach has contributed to Beijing’s aggressive diplomacy.

When governments adopt a softer approach on human rights and Tibet, their country’s potential for negotiation on important strategic issues becomes more constricted. Going to great lengths to accommodate the Chinese leadership’s sensitivities at a time when Chinese President Xi Jinping is presiding over the most eviscerating crackdown on civil society in a generation weakens a country’s leverage instead of strengthening it.

Demands from China to Western democracies, which have included telling prime ministers not to meet the Dalai Lama, or to withdraw criticism, as with this example, are aimed at reducing their negotiating strength, and asserting Beijing’s own agenda for greater gains.

Some countries in Europe, such as the United Kingdom, have acceded to such demands and kowtowed to such a significant degree that they have faced a major public backlash for doing so. In the UK, even those involved in doing business with China expressed concern about the British government’s overly accommodating approach to Xi’s state visit last year. James McGregor, a business consultant with operations in China, said: “If you act like a panting puppy, the object of your attention is going to think they have got you on a leash.”

Sometimes the accommodating approach arises from short-term considerations of political expediency, rather than from an informed position. There is no credible evidence of significant economic loss when governments do risk Chinese wrath and take a position on, for instance, whom they can and cannot meet, whether it is the Dalai Lama or anyone else. For instance, when Norway did not apologize for the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, there was no evidence of any serious economic consequences – indeed, bilateral trade significantly increased, according to an analysis in The Diplomat.

Experienced China hands understand that the Beijing leadership will seek to frame the debate in its own terms, amplifying issues that are less important in order to compel concessions elsewhere. In the case of the row with the Bundestag Committee Chair, the official statement from the Foreign Ministry deliberately blamed his support for “Tibet independence” – although the issue of the status of Tibet has never entered the equation. Virtually all Western governments acknowledge that Tibet is a part of the PRC, and the Dalai Lama’s position is that he is seeking a genuine autonomy for Tibet under the auspices of the PRC.

And yet even so, Chinese diplomats have had some success in pushing governments to adopt specific language on the “Tibet independence” question, perhaps with a view to closing down future possible support for the Tibetan people. The UK, France and Denmark have all caved in this respect, giving the unnecessary addition to their official position that they “do not support Tibetan independence.”

It is nothing new that China attempts to use economic and commercial interests to enforce submission to its agenda, but it is new that in recent years too many European democracies seem willing to cooperate with this process, sometimes even engaging in pre-emptive capitulation and self-censorship before any demands are even made.

Kai Mueller is Executive Director of the International Campaign for Tibet in Germany and gives regular briefings to UN Committees and Parliamentary Committees in Germany on Tibet and human rights.