Tough talk from the EU fails to pierce China’s hot air bubbles

President Xi Jinping dismisses human rights issues and trots out the same lines on a trade deal

It appears the European Union has finally run out of patience with China. But tough talk is unlikely to pierce the hot air speech bubbles floating out of Beijing.

Earlier this week, EU leaders again called for the world’s second-largest economy to open up markets, respect human rights in Hong Kong and end the crackdown against Muslim Uighurs in the closed province of Xinjiang.

The lack of progress into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, which officially started in the Chinese city of Wuhan in January, was also raised.

In response, President Xi Jinping came up with the usual bluster about trade and dismissed human rights issues after refusing to take part in the post-EU-China summit media briefing.

Human rights

“[The] Chinese people will not accept ‘an instructor’ on human rights and oppose ‘double standards’,” he said as reported by the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

“China is willing to strengthen exchanges with the European side based on the principle of mutual respect so that the two sides can both make progress,” Xi added.

On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU Council President Charles Michel and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen touched all the bases during a two-hour video conference. But they appeared to come away with just a handful of promises.

“Europe is a player, not a playing field,” Michel, who chaired the summit, told a press conference, referring to the slow pace in opening up China’s economy.

Von der Leyen went even further. She made it clear that Xi’s ruling Communist Party government must “tear down” trade barriers.

“The European market is open, and European companies must have fair and equal access to the Chinese market in return,” von der Leyen said.

Citing a catalog of complaints, she highlighted a lack of opportunities in communications, IT, biotech and health care sectors.

“We see that our investors just face too many barriers in these key sectors, and for us, with market access, it’s not just a question of meeting halfway, but it’s a question of rebalancing the asymmetry,” von der Leyen said.

When it came to human rights, Michel revealed there had been an “intense discussion” with Xi regarding Hong Kong and the Xinjiang internment camps.

The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic was also put firmly on the table.

Positive note

“It is important to continue understanding the origins of the pandemic and therefore we were clear that it is very important to give [the] WHO [World Health Organization] all the possibilities to lead its investigations on the origin of Covid-19,” von der Leyen said.

Naturally, optimize was in short supply. But Merkel tried to sound a positive note now that Germany has taken over the rotating presidency of the EU.

She pressed Xi to be clear about whether China was committed to an investment deal that would open up new markets for European businesses.

“We put on pressure … to make progress on the investment agreement,” Merkel told a media briefing in Berlin.

“Overall, cooperation with China must be based on certain principles – reciprocity, fair competition. We [have] different social systems, but while we are committed to multilateralism, it must be rules-based,” she added, underlining the challenges ahead.