The case of Ilham Tohti shows how EU’s lack of unity on human rights policy allows Beijing to get its way.
This week, the EU holds the latest round of talks in its ongoing dialogue with China on the issue of human rights. One obvious topic for the agenda is the case of Ilham Tohti. A Chinese appellate court recently confirmed the life sentence handed down last September to this mild-mannered, bespectacled and thoroughly peaceful Beijing academic who advocates for rights for Uyghurs. The Ilham Tohti case highlights a couple of worrying trends in China as well as Europe.
The Ilham Tohti case highlights a couple of worrying trends in China as well as Europe.
The first is the toughening of China’s repression. No other political dissident has ever received a life sentence in China. Ilham Tohti had been arrested once in 2010 and released, largely as a result of international intervention. This time, however, he was held in shackles for a month before his trial, and his immediate family had their life savings confiscated to pay an extortionate fine.
The increased severity underlines the Chinese government’s ability to turn prevailing circumstances to its advantage. 2014 has seen violence spiral in Xinjiang, with suicide squads wielding knives and paramilitary forces shooting protesters. Uyghur rights are equated with separatism and separatism with terrorism in what becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as Uyghurs are left with no other outlet for protest. The Chinese government knows the predominantly Han population’s revulsion against violence bolsters popular support for state repression. Internationally, the deterioration of the situation in Xinjiang comes at the worst possible time. Western public opinion is transfixed by the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq and will show little sympathy for largely Muslim Uyghurs. The level of force used by China’s armed police in Xinjiang this summer went largely unnoticed by governments around the world.
The increased severity underlines the Chinese government’s ability to turn prevailing circumstances to its advantage.
The sentencing of Ilham Tohti also illustrates the disarray in EU member states’ disparate human rights policies on China. The EU ambassador to Beijing called for Tohti’s release and the EU’s External Action Service condemned his sentence but the gap between EU member states is wider than ever. Germany, which is China’s largest EU trading partner, actually took the strongest public stand, with Angela Merkel issuing a personal statement alongside Berlin’s official declarations. Britain merely expressed its “concern”, while France remained silent. The latter is particularly surprising, because Ilham Tohti had been a guest of the French Foreign Affairs Ministry in 2009 as part of its “personalities of the future” programme . A search of the ministry’s website draws a blank, although the website of the French Embassy in China does carry a reference to the two European declarations on the case.
Compare this to what happened in June 2011 when a well-timed private letter from Prime Minister Cameron, Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy demanding the freedom of artist-activist Ai Weiwei helped get him released on the eve of a visit to Europe by then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao .
The sentencing of Ilham Tohti also illustrates the disarray in EU member states’ disparate human rights policies on China.
Back in 2010 Britain, Germany and France agreed to co-ordinate their statements on the Dalai Lama, but today pan-EU policy on Tibet’s spiritual leader in exile is farcical. With the exception of Britain’s David Cameron in 2012 and Austrian Chancellor Faymann in 2013, most European governments have avoided direct contact with him. Other member states face Chinese demands for apologies for holding earlier meetings, with some governments making stunning U-turns.
The reasons for this are China’s use of its economic leverage, Europe’s current crisis of confidence, and the crowding out of Chinese human rights issues by pressing geopolitical concerns closer to Europe. Nonetheless, there is a failure in Europe’s human rights approach to China that is well documented in a recent study  by Karin Kinzelbach. She recounts, for example, how between 1995 and 1997 the so-called “Airbus countries” (France, Germany, Italy and Spain) engineered the “quiet diplomacy” away from open condemnation at the United Nations.
But a darker story also emerges: Chinese cancellation of meetings at the last minute to exclude participants from Europe, the Chinese denial of “black jails” while Chinese media was reporting on them publicly, and a man whose case had been raised by the EU who was executed on the morning a human rights dialogue was starting in Beijing.
Kinzelbach asks the difficult question – where did Europe’s quiet diplomacy have an impact? Apart from the Ai Weiwei case cited above, she estimates that the decision by China to submit all death sentences to its Supreme People’s Court may have been influenced in part by European lobbying. But most damningly, the dialogue itself may have been a compromise between professed European values and expediency; she quotes a European participant who explained: “I am not aware that the EU has demanded results. (…) It is just a venue for us to express concern. (…) If public statements on the Dialogue mention results anywhere, then that’s just public-relations speak."
The reasons for this are China’s use of its economic leverage, Europe’s current crisis of confidence, and the crowding out of Chinese human rights issues by pressing geopolitical concerns closer to Europe.
Karin Kinzelbach does not put enough emphasis on the disastrous lack of coordination among EU member states where intergovernmental action appears to be virtually non-existent. But, while she notes that China’s economic rise makes criticism by the EU more difficult, she also suggests Europe should stop wasting time on dialogue and should take advantage of its outdated arms embargo to gain Chinese concessions on human rights. After all, the arms embargo was imposed on human rights grounds in the first place.
However this last point is open to question. China would certainly take any movement on the arms embargo as a further sign of weakness. What’s required is a stronger European foreign policy and stronger EU institutions. European leaders have at best tried to separate economics from politics and at worst have stayed silent on human rights to help attract Chinese lending and investment. The result is that – while, ten years ago, China itself did not believe in “political” trade and did its best to separate its economy from politics – today the attitude of many Europeans has encouraged Beijing to become more strategic and exercise its leverage to sanction its critics while rewarding its friends.
 This act of « quiet diplomacy » was to remain confidential.
 Katrin Kinzelbach, The EU’s Human Rights Dialogue with China: Quiet Diplomacy and its Limits (London & New York: Routledge, 2014).
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.
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