By Duncan Bartlett
China is enduring a barrage of complaints from Europe’s political and business leaders. Hong Kong has created a rallying point for critics, who are also being egged on by the Americans. China’s state media tries to put a positive spin on the situation. Yet as Duncan Bartlett writes, there’s not much good news from Europe to reassure patriotic readers in China.
The state-run media in China does not just report domestic and international news – it acts as the nation’s voice. Its primary goal is to project a positive image of the country. It has been doing this for the benefit of a domestic audience since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. China also has a large and well-funded network of newspapers, broadcasters and websites which are designed to spread its influence internationally. Many of them use the English language.
Yet in my view, despite the enormous resources at its disposal, Chinese journalism aimed at foreigners tends to be fairly clumsy. When it comes to international news, it usually sticks to uncontroversial issues. Newspapers and TV news bulletins show Chinese leaders shaking hands with the prime ministers and presidents of other countries, leaving the impression of friendly dialogue and mutual respect. To my mind, Chinese political news usually feels dull, compared to political reporting elsewhere.
This year, the people who edit Chinese propaganda are faced with a problem: intense media interest has driven China high up the news agenda. Things have stopped being boring because there is a great deal of negative reaction towards China in other parts of the world. In the face of such negativity, what can the Chinese do to spin the story in their national interest? How can they both explain the situation and be the voice of China?
Hong Kong and the EU
The challenge is particularly demanding when it comes to reporting China’s dealings with the European Union. China has made an intense effort over many years to build diplomatic goodwill among the governments and institutions of the EU but its hard work is being undermined by a number of contentious issues, especially the role of China in the affairs of Hong Kong.
The overwhelming majority of European leaders have expressed dismay at the imposition of the new security laws and have spoken out in support of the pro-democracy movement in the city.
Hong Kong was a major point of disagreement at a summit which took place online in June, involving the European Council president Charles Michel, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, the Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang and Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Following the summit, a statement from the European side condemned the new security law and added that the EU and China do not share “the same values, political system, or approach to multilateralism.”
However, the official Chinese statement which followed that summit and which was dutifully carried by state media, put a completely positive spin on the matter, claiming that “there is no fundamental conflict of interest between China and Europe.”
Since that summit, the rhetoric on the European side has grown more shrill. Indeed, it is becoming hard to interpret it as anything other than confrontational. For example the Danish Foreign Minister, Jeppe Kofod, said in July that: “Open and free societies must stand up for our shared values, reject authoritarianism wherever it surfaces and defend our democracies from hybrid threats, and from terrorism.” He called for “a common, coordinated, and a strong position on China.”
Britain still matters
The issue of Hong Kong has also created a common cause for the European Union and the United Kingdom. The UK left the EU in January 2020, following Brexit. Since then, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been at the forefront of the challenge to China over Hong Kong. He has suspended an extradition treaty and offered Hong Kong citizens the right to live and work in Britain.
Mr Johnson says China has broken a deal struck in 1984, known as the Joint Agreement, which promised to uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy after it ceased to be a British colony and was handed back to Chinese control. He says that China has breached an international agreement, endorsed by the United Nations.
The UK’s stance has been supported by the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who says he has “urged China to stick to its international responsibilities and respect the agreements it made with the UK.”
One cause, many supporters
Criticism of China in Europe is not confined to one country or one political group. While parties on right tend to emphasise what they see as the strategic threat to Europe’s interests, politicians on the left take up human rights causes, such as Hong Kong and the treatment of the Uighers in Xinzhen.
Outside the political arena, many business leaders have become frustrated with the Chinese approach, particularly the demand that all foriegn companies operating in China must set up joint ventures. They complain that this forces them to disclose sensitive information about technology to the Chinese, which leads to intellectual property theft.
The dilemma over China is particularly acute in Germany, which has recently taken over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. Angela Merkel has made many visits to China and encouraged German companies to do more business there. Since she took over as Chancellor in 2005, German exports to China have quintupled to just under 100 billion EUR (110 billion USD), about three percent of GDP, according to the Economist magazine.
Mrs Merkel has not been as belligerent on China than some other European leaders. She has spoken of the “need to seek dialogue” and “to build a relationship of trust.” Many politicians in Germany, including some members of her own CDU party, say this is far too weak a response to a strident and nationalstic China, which has developed under the leadership of Xi Jinping.
The Chinese state media hope that Mrs Merkel will not become another adversary. The director of the German Studies Centre at Tongji University, Zheng Chunrong, wrote in the Chinese newspaper The Global Times that the two countries should cooperate on tackling climate change and in working towards stimulating the global economy towards recovery, post-pandemic.
“Germany has retained its stance on strategic partnership with China,” noted Professor Chunrong, adding that Mrs Merkel appears to have distanced herself from “US schemes to attack China over issues related to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”
America’s great rival
The wave of scepticism towards China which has rolled across Europe started in the United States. Great power rivalry has become a dominant theme in US politics.
During a visit to Britain and Denmark in July, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke of his desire to build a coalition of democratic allies to challenge China. “We want to see every nation who understands freedom and democracy to understand this threat that the Chinese Communist Party is posing to them,” he said.
The EU’s Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell notes that the bloc is now “working on a comprehensive and coordinated EU response” to China. The signs are that it is likely to move towards the much tougher line, advocated by Britain and the United States. Mr Borrell believes “the EU has been too naïve in our relations with China. We have to build realistic relations.”
Chinese media outlets will try to downplay the conflict, presenting it as just another dull political matter. Yet more balanced interpreters will surely see the current see the situation as an enormous setback to China’s international standing. I believe it is a story which still deserves our full attention.
Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a former BBC Correspondent in Brussels.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)