Every day, China and the EU trade over 1 billion Euros. China is the EU’s second-biggest trading partner after the United States, while the EU is China’s largest trading partner. The European Commission presents China as “simultaneously a cooperation partner, with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” This clearly shows that the EU’s relationship with China is incredibly complex. As such, the EU has to balance its trading needs with China with upholding the disdain at its dictatorial method of governance. Yet, despite the political will from both sides to strengthen their ties due to an obvious economic necessity, there is latent friction over values between China and the EU. The EU’s relationship with China is now being called into question due to two main conflicts: the issue of the debt burdens in developing countries and the outrageous human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

BRI and Debt Burdens

Since 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the project has received mixed reactions. Supporters of the BRI argue it is a way for China to invest in emerging markets and secure its access to energy and raw materials that are needed to feed China’s growing middle class. Yet others see the BRI as China’s own Marshall Plan, as China tries to gain economic and geopolitical influence in the Eurasian continent. Critics use the term debt-trap diplomacy to claim that, under the BRI, when failing to pay the high-interest-loans, the debtor countries are pressured to provide economic or political concessions to China. Additionally, the conditions on loans are often held secretive, and many projects have already been abandoned due to host countries being unable to pay back their loans.

Source 1: the BRI consists of two major trading routes – the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road stretching across multiple countries and regions.

As the economic crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies, there is a growing international concern over the debt burdens faced by many developing countries. Both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have pledged for creditors to support a suspension of debt repayments. However, one lender has remained silent: China. Instead of engaging in multilateral agreements that are under the scope of international financial norms, it has chosen to engage bilaterally with individual debtors. Debtors fear that Chinese relief is not on the horizon, or that it will be insufficient and tied to conditions that will worsen their economic situation. Thus, a multilateral and coordinated agreement with China to address the debt challenges should be a priority for the EU.

Human Rights

These issues under China’s landmark Belt and Road Initiative go hand in hand with ongoing human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region. In 1949, Xinjiang became part of the People’s Republic of China. Although it was formerly a traditional agricultural area, it is currently undergoing rapid economic growth and industrialisation. Xinjiang has now become a central logistics hub of Beijing’s BRI, as the region sits along the ancient Silk Road, opening the door to the West.

Figure 2: Belt and Road Initiative land routes that run through China’s Xinjiang

Since 2016, Beijing has gripped its control over Xinjiang through the repression of its ethnic minorities. Under the guise of “anti-separatism” or “counter-terrorism”, Chinese authorities have subjected more than 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang and Buddhist Tibetans to intrusive surveillance, arbitrary detention, and forced indoctrination. While outside observers have described China’s actions as a “cultural genocide,” Chinese authorities speak of “transformation through education” and vocational training centres

Reports from survivors expose a horrifying Orwellian reality. Inside the camps, detainees are subjected to constant surveillance, torture (waterboarding, electric shocks, sleep deprivation), sterilisation, rape, and forced abortions. The aim is to “brainwash” detainees to renounce their religious beliefs and put their faith in “Xi Jinping Thought” rather than the Koran. The persecution of Uighurs and other minorities is a systematic crime against humanity: ranging from torture and imprisonment to the disappearance of individuals. It is the most extensive violation of the right to liberty and dignity as human beings.

What is most worrying is that these human rights violations are not confined to the walls of the “re-education camps”. They extend beyond. Several reports illustrate that Uighurs living abroad are being harassed by Chinese authorities to inform against other Uighurs, return to Xinjiang or remain silent about the situation there, sometimes by detaining their family members.

What has been the European Union’s response to these reports so far? The EU has expressed grave concern about China’s repression of the Uighurs and has urged China to close the “re-education camps” immediately. Furthermore, the EU has asked Beijing to let independent observers into Xinjiang and warned that China must make concessions. Finally, the EU is considering the adoption of protective measures. These include restricting investments from Chinese state-owned enterprises in Europe, incentivising European businesses to compete with Chinese companies globally, and scrutinising foreign investments from China. Simultaneously, the US has blocked a range of Chinese products linked to “forced labour” in Xinjiang. Yet, unlike Washington, the EU has not imposed any sanctions on China over the Xinjiang situation. 

The reality is that the EU Member States are not united in their attitudes towards China, which is highlighted in their uncoordinated approach towards the Belt and Road Initiative. Some countries criticise that Chinese firms disrespect the rights of local workers, do not respect measures for environmental protection, and are reluctant to hire locals. However, several CCE countries such as Hungary and Poland have expressed their interest in cooperating with China under the BRI, as the initiative provides opportunities to update their economic infrastructure and gain access to Asian markets. Such division in the EU is a major obstacle in forming any well-coordinated strategy towards China in the future.

The EU’s external action is governed by the principles that have inspired its creation: democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for the principles of the UN Charter and international law. These principles are at the heart of the EU’s relationship with other countries, which is why the EU finds itself fundamentally opposed to the human rights violations that are currently taking place in China.

Opposing the world’s most extensive authoritarian regime requires a brave and far-reaching moral stance. Whilst the EU consistently speaks out about the deteriorating human rights situation in China, it repeatedly fails to put an end to the atrocities and terror in Xinjiang. This human rights crisis, together with the questions raised by the debt burdens in developing countries under the Belt and Road Initiative, calls into question the Chinese will to uphold international commitments and ultimately divides the future EU-China relations.