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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

China Rejects Human Rights Criticism as EU Seeks Trade Rebalance

By Henry Ridgwell September 15, 2020

Europe has called on China to take down trade barriers and rebalance their economic relationship, following a virtual summit held Monday among EU leaders and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

European leaders also raised human rights concerns, but Beijing has rejected what it calls interference in its affairs.

Monday's videoconference was a substantially downsized version of the original plan to hold a face-to-face summit among all 27 European Union heads of state and the Chinese president in the German city of Leipzig.

A resurgent coronavirus pandemic in Europe forced the change of plan. The virtual meeting was attended by Xi, along with European Council President Charles Michel; European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the council of the EU.

Speaking at a press conference after the meeting, Michel reiterated demands for China to open its markets.

"Europe needs to be a player, not a playing field," he told reporters. "Today's meeting represents another step forward in forging a more balanced relationship with China."

Von der Leyen was more direct.

"We expect that the market access barriers in China will be removed," she said.

Europe has voiced frustration at its lack of access to Chinese markets and at having to compete with state-backed industries. Brussels sees the current trade relationship with China as deeply unfair, but is not seeking a trade war, said analyst Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.

"The reality is that the EU would want to be strengthening its economic relationship with China with some adjustments," he told VOA.

"I think COVID-19 has changed a lot of things in terms of the relationship with China. Many of these countries have found China less than an entirely reliable trading partner or supplier of essential goods like medical supplies. So, some of that will change. But they really don't want to have an economic decoupling with China," Tsang said.

Human rights

The trade talks were overshadowed by growing criticism in Europe of China's human rights record. The EU has requested that Beijing end its clampdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong following the imposition earlier this year of a so-called "national security law," which critics say effectively ends the right to protest and freedom of speech. The law will allow the Communist Party to markedly expand its power in and tighten control of the Asian financial hub.

Europe has voiced growing alarm over China's treatment of the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang province, where human rights groups say millions of people are being detained amid reports of forced labor and sterilizations. China denies the accusations.

Speaking at a press conference after the summit, Merkel said Europe would continue to raise these issues with Beijing.

"The human rights dialogue will continue. (Chinese President Xi Jinping) offered this," Merkel said. "So, there are already points of contact for further joint action. But that does not mean that there is agreement on these issues."

The United States has also repeatedly raised concerns over China's human rights record. Speaking on France Inter radio Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked Europe to take a tougher stance.

"We've always said that when human rights are under risk – whether it's the inability to practice one's religion and one's faith, or the simple ability to speak and exercise the basic rights of conscience – that the United States has a role in making clear that that's unacceptable," Pompeo said.

"It's what we've done with respect to what's taking place in western China. It's what we've done in other parts of the world. It's what we hope and we expect of other nations around the world. And we think the Europeans understand this risk in the same way that we do. We hope that they'll take actions that reflect the seriousness with which these human rights violations need to be viewed."

Reaction from Xi

China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported that Xi rejected any interference in Chinese affairs during Monday's virtual summit, particularly on human rights.

The Brussels-Beijing relationship is strained, analyst Tsang said.

"Governments generally, and the EU as a whole, also take a more robust stance, reflecting the shift in public opinion towards China."

The EU is China's top trading partner, and analysts say Beijing wants to avoid further disputes amid its trade war with the United States. Brussels said it will continue to bring up security and human rights concerns, even as it seeks more trade.

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