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25 August 2020

How European views on China are hardening in the wake of Covid-19

The perception of warm relations between China and EU countries is increasingly at odds with reality.

By Ido Vock

Attitudes towards China are souring in Europe. Coronavirus has been the catalyst for this shift in perceptions, according to experts and politicians, yet dissatisfaction has also been growing for years, with potentially far-reaching consequences.

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank, has studied how perceptions of China have evolved since the start of the Covid-19 crisis. It found that European publics have markedly cooled on the Asian giant during the coronavirus crisis. In France, 62 per cent say their opinion worsened this year, while just 6 per cent say it improved. In Germany, 48 per cent say their view has deteriorated – the same percentage as in Europe as a whole.

Janka Oertel, director of the Asia programme at the ECFR, says that the defining characteristic of this shift has been its speed. “In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, China was Europe’s saviour. It was an excellent partner for our economic relationship and an important friend for Europe. In many capitals, this sentiment is still there – but now Europeans publics are waking up to the fact that China is becoming a very different actor.”

According to Oertel, the coronavirus crisis has now “catapulted” China to the top of public discourse in Europe and there is an increasing domestic will to apply sanctions. Because the EU is China’s largest trading partner, it also has more leverage over Beijing than is commonly accepted, she says.

In recent years, increasing Chinese investment in EU countries was seen as tying the two blocs together. But especially when it comes to Eastern Europe, this perception is vastly overrated.

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Figures collated by the Rhodium Group, a consultancy, found that in the 19 years to 2019, Chinese foreign direct investment to the EU’s easternmost member states amounted to under €10bn less than went to the Netherlands alone. France recieved €14bn and Germany €23bn. The clear outlier, though, is the UK, which received over €50bn of Chinese investment; a clear legacy of David Cameron and George Osborne’s “golden decade”.

Cumulative value of Chinese FDI transactions in Europe by country, 2000-2019
Figures presented in EUR (€) billion

There is also a disconnect between the perception of Chinese influence in eastern Europe and the reality, according to Jakub Jakobowski, a research fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies, a Warsaw think tank. Since 1989, some of the harshest critics of China have been central and eastern European states, Jakobowski says, a legacy which is reasserting itself. Some of the elected officials who have been most willing to speak out against China have been in central and eastern Europe. The mayor of Prague, for instance, has been vocal in his criticism of China, flying Tibetan flags in the Czech capital and cancelling a sister city agreement with Beijing in favour of Taipei, the capital of Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China’s arch-rival). 

Peter Irwin, an official at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a group advocating for the rights of Uighurs in China, says that his organisation has been increasingly successful in lobbying EU member states to take a harder line on China because the attitudes of European publics are shifting. “I have seen this shift take place in real time.”

Irwin cites a 2018 report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, according to which the incarceration of up to two million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of so-called “re-education camps” is credible as a turning point in perceptions of China. “I think there is pressure for Western governments to do something.”

European companies, too, are being pressured to divest from Xinjiang. Although Xinjiang’s economy is relatively small when compared to the economy of China as a whole, some industries in China would be vulnerable to the pressure of international divestment. Around a quarter of the world’s cotton supply is sourced from Xinjiang, for instance.

The introduction of a new national security law in Hong Kong  under which actions considered to constitute secession, subversion, terrorism or “collusion with foreign forces” are now punishable by life in prison  is another issue which is putting existing relationships into question. Several pro-democracy Hong Kong figures, such as the activist Agnes Chow and media tycoon Jimmy Lai have already been arrested under the law, and the UK has said it will ease residency requirements for some three million Hong Kongers eligible for British National Overseas passports.

Ashley Feng, a former researcher at the Center for a New American Security, says that Beijing views the issues of Xinjiang and Hong Kong as “non-negotiable and core to China’s national interests.” The question for Western democracies, she says, is how to shift the implementation of China’s policies in those areas in a direction that is more amenable to human rights and the rule of law.

In a speech in the White House Rose Garden on 14 July, US president Donald Trump announced a set of measures to sanction China for the new National Security Law in Hong Kong. The measures spanned economic policies, notably removing the territory’s special status under US law. In several areas, including preferential US treatment regarding passport holders, Hong Kong will now be treated the same as mainland China.

Trump’s Rose Garden measures, Feng said, were a demonstration of the arsenal available to Western countries which seek to stand up to China’s abuses. Based on growing public pressure in Europe, they could be a precursor to further sanctions still to come from China’s largest trading partner, the EU.

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