Human Rights? Up in Thin Air

Article published on Oct. 23, 2003
community published
Article published on Oct. 23, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The Chinese leadership is celebrating one success after another: even in manned space travel they are light years ahead. And the EU is doing everything to ensure that remains so.

For 21 hours Yang Yiwei was the freest man on earth. Or rather, the freest man in space: as the first Chinese astronaut, he was spending the better part of last Wednesday orbiting the blue planet, while down below China’s fading-red Communist dictators gleefully rubbed their hands in anticipation of his return.

For China’s leadership, the timing couldn’t have been better. Only two days before Yang’s departure the administration published a policy briefing, laying out for the first time the state of future relations with the EU. If things run as the Chinese government intends, the EU will soon be their main trading partner, ahead of the US and Japan. Indeed, things have picked up pace, and already there are joint working groups to help prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while the European car industry is leaping at the chance to reach the world’s most promising future automobile market. On the 30th of October a key EU-China summit will kick off, with the goal of further deepening mutual trade. No wonder the EU’s Research Commissioner, Philippe Busquin, greeted the Chinese space mission’s success by cryptically remarking that ‘this endeavour can bring nations together’.

A 21st century dictatorship

Yet with all these star-gazing ideals Europe’s leaders seem to be forgetting what conditions are like down on the ground for ordinary Chinese. Non-conformists are arrested, religious minorities oppressed and internet cafes closed. However in a 3 page document by the EU’s External Affairs Council, ‘human rights’ seemed only to merit a cursory 6 lines.

But what’s the point of having a common foreign policy if it only furthers petty economic interests – even if it is very successful at doing so? That somewhere in the galaxy not far away a ‘Taikonaut’ and a ‘Euronaut’ will be able to shake hands whilst down below on earth people are being locked up and tortured? What, even, is the point of weightening up China’s geopolitical gravity? Do we seriously want to prop up an aging Communist regime with capitalist supports just to make it look presentable? Or perhaps we naively believe that along with Europe’s fine cars and washing machines human rights can be included in the bundle, like instruction manuals, for a culture that does not understand the Enlightenment language in which they are written.

Such questions must be brought into the open, and the opportunity used to debate Europe’s external policies. Because if things in China remain as they stand, it becomes increasingly probable that in the future too Chinese will have to launch into space before they can take a breath of freedom.