EU-China: Sense and Sensitivity’s Split

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The EU and China are getting out of sync. It’s about discourse, but it’s much more than that. It’s about the economy, the world order. It’s about lovely and impossible dreams. It’s about playing straight, while a raging war could light up Asia, too.

Political ties between China and its leading trade partner (the European Union) have been slipping for months.

Europe first appeared ready to sign a major trade agreement with China (the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, CAI) in December 2020, despite fierce American resistance, then failed to do so due to opposition from the EU parliament.

Things soured further with Chinese sanctions against EU parliament members, who were blacklisted because of their hostility to CAI. Then it got even more bitter because of deep China-EU disagreements over the war in Ukraine. For Europe, it is an existential issue; Beijing at first treated it as a matter of accommodating Russian “reasonable” territorial ambitions.

Beijing’s important trade partnership stood to lose dearly in the middle of all this. Last year, China exported € 472 bn to the EU and imported € 223 bn[1] from it, netting an almost € 250 bn surplus. With drastic Covid measures exacting a high toll on the domestic economy, wrecking links with your main trade partner can’t be trifled with.

Therefore, Beijing has sent its special ambassador for European affairs, Wu Hongbo, on a three-week tour of Europe to countries like Belgium, Romania, France, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Cyprus, and Italy. Wu’s trip follows another Chinese envoy, Huo Yuzhen. He unsuccessfully attempted to revive the 16+1 format on a tour of Eastern European countries in May.

Noah Barkin argued: “After Huo’s trip fell flat, it is Wu’s turn to produce some feel-good European deliverables for Xi before the Communist Party congress in the autumn. “They are afraid of losing Europe,” the senior EU official said. “The new fear in Beijing is that we see China as being one with Russia, that a serious deterioration of our relationship with Russia will lead to the same with China.” But Wu, according to people familiar with his conversations in Brussels at the start of his trip, has not come with anything new to offer. “There is nothing in the briefcase,” a German diplomat told me. “So, the idea that they can just wriggle out of this is wishful thinking. There are no signs that the strategic direction that has been set by Xi is up for debate”.[2]

Chinese diplomacy can’t manage to pierce a general mood in Europe. There is a sense that present challenges are driving a wedge between the Chinese government’s concerns and European citizens’ sensitivity. A vital element is the living conditions of expats in China, something that doesn’t happen in Europe but that people living in Europe now are growing very concerned about.

Harsh Covid regulations, threats of being discretionarily quarantined, mounting hitches, and complications in traveling freely back and forth from the country make investment and trade tiring and arduous. All of this trumps whatever economic advantage there was in dealing with the Chinese market and industry.

This sense highlights a deeper disconnect between the official Beijing propaganda peddled at home and abroad in the past couple of years.

During the height of Covid, scenes of vast boxes of masks being sent to Europe with the Chinese flag printed on top of them played wonderfully on TV in Beijing. They showed that now China is aiding distressed Europe as if it were a developing country needing assistance.

The same pictures did horribly in Europe, irking many who felt the Chinese were wantonly colonizing them without any discretion.

More problematic was the lack of feeling for Ukraine. Many ex-Soviet European countries felt the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a matter of life or death. It was a call to arms to withstand Moscow’s neo-imperial ambitions.

In the first weeks of the invasion, Chinese officials talking to EU colleagues on video sounded dismissive and callous over these concerns and ruffled many feathers in Europe—even the more cautious western Europeans were put off by the Chinese attitude. It all built up a greater gap in the mood of bilateral talks.

However, it is not a matter of being more or less sensitive. Perhaps something deeper is at stake in the complex dialogue between China and Europe.

The sense and sensitivity of China and Europe have split asunder because of Covid and the war in Ukraine, but it doesn’t end here.

It’s not China; it’s the world

In fact, after the big slumber dreaming of unfettered globalization, the Western world is realizing that the world order needs reassessment.

Philip Zelikow argued: “The need for a new world order is apparent, and policymakers are already at work trying to address the evident failures of the existing system. In doing so, they have again invoked values and philosophies. [US President Joseph] Biden, for instance, has described the war in Ukraine and tensions with China as part of “an ongoing battle in the world between democracy and autocracy.” French President Emmanuel Macron declared that Russia’s invasion had called democracy “into question before our eyes”.

Yet the best, most unifying organizing principle for what will be the fourth system of world order is practical problem solving. It’s convenient to perceive the world as apportioned into democracies and autocracies, but it is also self-regarding and divisive. People are more likely to come together around problems that command wide interest and embrace corrective actions that require wide participation. After years of theatrics that have resulted in catastrophes and growing fear, the system can no longer afford to place inclusiveness and symbolism ahead of teamwork and results.

To erect a new system, policymakers should start by addressing the most pressing current crisis: Ukraine. The military issues are already receiving intense attention. Yet economic issues may determine the outcome of the war as Russia tries to break not just Ukraine’s armed forces but its hope for a better future. The G-7 and allied countries must prepare a far-reaching strategy of Ukrainian reconstruction, tied to the ongoing process of EU accession for Ukraine and funded in part by frozen Russian state and state-related assets. Such an action, with expert assistance from EU staff and hundreds of billions of dollars in reconstruction aid, would be a peaceful counteroffensive on an epic scale. Ultimately, it would help Ukrainians believe and see that they can have a better future.[3]

That is: the present world order doesn’t work anymore. Even China seems to agree that the world needs a reassessment—although, of course, not along the lines Zelikow presented. China believes it is a big player, and thus the world must adapt to China. There should be a tianxia 天下, a revamped traditional Chinese global order, where China becomes again central, Beijing seems to believe. Or the world should be divided, acknowledging a Chinese “area of influence,” a tianxia part of the world under Chinese “protection.” This area is home of 60% of the world population and most of the global economic growth. Then if China establishes its area of influence here, not much later it will dominate everything.

It may be suitable if one looks at the size of China and the depth of its civilization; or it could be wrong if one looks at the history of the present world and the marginal role China had in it until the past couple of decades.

The world, in theory, can be reshaped by tinkering with the current order or with a total overhaul. But actually, complete overhauls are impossible. The history of revolutions proves that despite high-minded renovations, older unsolved issues creep up from below the new paint.

Moreover, China may now want to impose a new tianxia order, but in the past century, contemporary China came about by first rejecting that order, deemed to have caused the defeat by foreigners. That is, modern Chinese were born by rejecting their own tianxia order, which they considered the root cause of the national demise.

What is now the new tianxia? How different or similar is it from the old tianxia? It’s not clear. Indeed, it’s not here. In fact, the new tianxia was never there. It’s a brand-new experiment with no precedent and thus very likely to fail.

Besides, China never managed to get domestic consumption to overtake the importance of foreign trade. This is particularly true as anti-Covid measures are suppressing the domestic market. Then the economy has basically one driver, foreign surplus, which helps finance domestic infrastructure projects. It means that China has become more, not less, dependent on foreign trade. Without it, its booming economy could be a giant question mark.

Of course, the world needs Chinese goods, and it is in nobody’s interests to do without them. Still, for many countries, Chinese goods are a matter of convenience. For China, it’s about survival.

Meanwhile, very practically, the Ukrainian war is reshaping Western industry. If Europe has to sustain the Ukrainian war effort, it must crank up its military industries. Ukrainians and volunteers can do the fighting, but European industries have to supply the weapons to match similar Russian industrial efforts. Many civil productions in Europe could be converted or deemed sensible for export or cooperation with adversarial nations.

Although China is presently not in the same league as Russia, it is close to it; thus, international cooperation with China could languish, wither, and eventually may also come to a halt. Then what happens to China’s foreign trade, now churning at least one-third of the national GDP?

Then speaking to foreigners and Chinese is not just about “handling” them; it is an issue of substance.

One or two discourses

Open societies have a consistent unity of discourse or public position. If you like it externally, you will like it internally.

Like many non-open societies, China usually has two different discourses, one for foreigners and one for its nationals. And vice versa. Papers on US human rights abuses are freely circulated in America. The same is not true in closed societies. You are free to criticize others, better if it’s hostile forces, but you can’t do it for your government.

The two discourses were kept separate. Foreigners found it convenient to turn a blind eye to China’s domestic nationalism as long as Beijing convinced them it didn’t really believe in it. It also worked as long as the foreigners were convinced that by ignoring propaganda differences, they would help China and the Western world come together, conjoining the rail tracks, jiegui 接轨 , as the Chinese called it.

Chinese foreign minders argued that China’s nationalism was a ploy, like the crowds shouting anti-American slogans as US President Nixon came to Beijing to meet Mao. Mao actually welcomed Nixon, but it was too complicated to say it openly to the Chinese people.

Still, using the world stage to show off nationalist propaganda on issues that are very sensitive for Europeans is a different story. The two faces of the same propaganda may become more at odds with one another as China tries to extend its global influence abroad.

The Chinese look at what Beijing says abroad, which rarely works well for Chinese and foreigners, and the foreign minders get less and less traction abroad. This is even more true as foreigners are becoming disillusioned about China and Western world’s jiegui.

Then Beijing has to choose how to speak overseas.

As we saw, the mask donation campaign was certainly very useful domestically, but it was a tragedy in Europe and the world. Yet, a different “European approach” would not have worked domestically. The issue of the consistency of discourse is structural. It can’t be handled anymore by “foreign minders.”

The Soviets solved it radically by trying to convert the non-communists, thus using a unitary discourse. It worked while the USSR was considered a dreamland. It stopped working when the USSR was revealed to be a nightmare.

Beijing adopted a “double talk” used by imperial dynasties. It worked as long as foreigners and Chinese didn’t look out of their communication spaces. Now that the two are overlapping, they clash.

Then, in a nutshell, either Beijing adopts an “open talk” at home, or it will have to go “North Korea” abroad. Neither are easy solutions.

This is the most significant cultural and ideological challenge the party has faced since the Yan’an conference in 1941. Then Mao took over the party ideology and set it on a new course, eventually enabling him to win the civil war against the KMT nationalists. Now it is a much more comprehensive challenge. It is not about winning a war but avoiding it—and that would be a tremendous Chinese victory.


[1] See https://www.statista.com/statistics/257155/eu-trade-with-china/

[2] https://www.gmfus.org/news/watching-china-europe-june-2022

[3] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2022-06-21/hollow-order-international-system

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