China cracked down on protests following the Arab Awakening. Member states continued to delegate the issue of human rights to the EU level while pursuing their own commercial interests bilaterally.
The EU wants to see China protect human rights and further strengthen the rule of law. In 2011, there was a tightening of repression in China in response to the Arab Awakening. Security forces persecuted hundreds of activists, artists, intellectuals and lawyers using house arrest, enforced disappearance and regular arrest for many people whose activities were unconnected to the relatively few calls in China to copy the Arab Awakening. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson warned ominously that “the law is not a shield to hide behind”. The cautiousness associated with the upcoming leadership change in 2012 reinforced the quest for stability at all costs. The artist Ai Weiwei became the symbol of human rights violations in China in 2011 just as the writer Liu Xiaobo did in 2010.
France, Germany and the UK were united in criticising the arrest of Ai at Beijing airport in April, while the EEAS was slow to take a stand. But, in general, member states increasingly lack the courage to make public statements on human rights in China or to engage in a critical dialogue,and indebted countries are even more silent on these issues. Instead, they delegate this thorny issue to the EU level while pursuing their own commercial and economic interests bilaterally. The EU–China human rights dialogue, which is led by the EEAS, resumed in June but did not produce concrete results. The Chinese did, however, take several small but nevertheless positive steps such as a reduction in the number of crimes punishable by death. In the future, the EU should reach out more to the Chinese civil society beyond the gatekeepers in Beijing. In particular, the internet is the new battleground for freedom of expression and offers a slightly less censored option for many Chinese citizens. The role of the internet in the popular outrage about the government’s mishandling of the high-speed train crash in Wenzhou in July, which killed 40 people, shows its potential to create change.