“Without pressure from Europe, the dialogue goes nowhere”

Article published on Jan. 7, 2004
community published
Article published on Jan. 7, 2004

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

Human rights, democracy, free trade unions… Dialogue between Europe and China has broken down. European powers now emphasise commercial relations. Cai Chongguo condemns this capitulation.

In exile in France for the last thirteen years, Cai Chongguo, 47, is the editor in chief of the China Labour Bulletin, the electronic journal of one of the first independent labour union movements in China, and hence banned by the Party. He shares his views in an interview with café babel on the keys to an effective dialogue between China and Europe on human rights and democracy.

café babel: What do you think Europe can do today to help China progress towards democracy?

Cai Chongguo: First I have to say I am a bit disappointed with the behaviour of European countries over the past four or five years. Until the mid 1990s, countries like Holland, Denmark, and Sweden knew how to protest when necessary, and forcefully, against human rights violations in China. A little behind them, France nonetheless made its voice heard. And then, just before the establishment of the Euro, these attitudes changed. Today there are only a handful of countries without commercial interests in China left to protest during periods of abusive arrests in Beijing. Certain Members of the European Parliament make some gestures. But it is still very little. The Commission keeps quiet on the subject. It is highly regrettable. Because without pressure on the Chinese government, the dialogue goes nowhere.

But do the European Union and its member states have the means to exercise this pressure?

Of course they do. China needs European imports and technology. Beijing also counts on Brussels to support its policy of one sole China, vis-à-vis Taiwan. During negotiations, the European Union should ask for more progress on respect for democracy in exchange for its support. China will not see it as a casus belli, as something worth fighting over. On the contrary, it would be natural for a country like France to act this way, for example, because it has always been perceived in China as the country of human rights.

How do you put pressure on a country without inflicting painful lessons? What is the most appropriate method?

Naturally, one must avoid sermonising. But without keeping quiet. That means showing China that this dialogue on human rights is in its interests and in the interests of its people. That said, Europe must remain firm. For example, Chinese authorities have recently condemned a worker to four years in prison for simply having protested against job lay-offs. The EU should have publicly protested with an aim to make both Chinese and Europeans aware of the problem. Whispering its displeasure in back corridors accomplishes nothing.

Can we really hope that the Chinese authorities will continue to react to this kind of public declaration?

The new generation in power in Beijing can no longer afford itself the luxury of ignoring its human rights critics. Because news media from the outside world is circulating round the entire country. This is particularly true on the Internet, which the government, despite its efforts, has not managed to totally control.

Beijing also wants to show off to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Declarations tarnishing its image would be a disaster. Regarding Taiwan, European powers should support the one-sole-China policy, while demanding the respect of human rights. They must refuse to support a dictatorial China in situations of conflict with Taiwan. The same for Hong Kong. The pro-Beijing party just lost the last local elections in the territory of Hong Kong. European powers should have thrown themselves into the breach, exhorting Beijing to respect its people if it wanted to retain the support of Europe.

The European Union is not aware of the advantages it has to pressure China because it ignores, or wants to ignore, China’s weaknesses.

How do you explain this ignorance?

The governments of Europe yield to the interests of their commercial lobbies. China has changed. Various new elites have emerged. When European political representatives visit my country, accompanied by their captains of industry, it is always the same fools’ song. They are disarmed by the new Chinese elites, educated in the school of western modernity. And the Europeans capitulate… For these elites play the same role of “shop-window” as the coastal mega-cities of Shanghai or Canton: they hide the country’s disastrous social reality. The reality is that at least 20 million Chinese live on less than 10 euros a month. Europe should include these social problems in the dialogue. In particular the question of trade unions.

How do you ask the current authoritarian regime in China to grant its people freedom for trade unions?

By proving that freedom for trade unions does not threaten it. If Europe had its finger on the pulse, it would know that local governments have been negotiating with workers movements for years. It is the only way to maintain the social stability so dear to Beijing. Of course the negotiations are followed by arrests. But the role of the EU is to make it understood that in oppressing the workers, the Party is channelling popular discontent with employers towards itself. To preserve itself, the government must authorise free labour unions. The worst part is that freedom of association is even inscribed, black and white, in the Chinese Constitution.

What do you think about legal cooperation between Europe and China to help establish the rule of law?

This cooperation makes Chinese people laugh. Today there are legions of well-educated lawyers and legal texts. That does not stop the central government and local authorities from continuing to break the law. The EU should stop this “cooperation” spectacle, which does nothing but appease its own domestic public opinion. It should be refusing to spend money to help build a “rule of law” that is not respected. The only way to be effective is to investigate cases of corruption and abuse and to denounce them.

We, the dissidents, keep in daily contact with the Chinese people. We are ready to disseminate information. The problem is, the authorities in Europe do not want to talk to us any more. If the EU really wanted to help China move towards democracy, it would favour the development of a free civil society, the only real basis for a sustainable democracy.