May 26, 2020

MEPs and Experts Discuss EU's Business and Human Rights Relations with China and Pakistan

On 22 May 2020, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) held a webinar to introduce its latest report A Tale of Three Ports - The Impact of the Belt and Road Initiative on Unrepresented Peoples in Pakistan and China. While Brussels still lacks a consistent policy vis-à-vis the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), there is ample evidence that these infrastrucutural developments are unleashing a violent crackdown on unrepresented peoples. In light of such reality, the UNPO has raised the question of EU complicity in human rights violations committed along the supply lines of BRI and CPEC.

The virtual encounter brought together Members of the European Parliament, experts and representatives of NGOs for an exchange of views on the European Union’s position regarding trade with China and Pakistan, looking at human rights cost for minorities in Pakistan and China's Xinjiang. 


Opening the debate, UNPO’s Lucia Parrucci and Fernando Burgés introduced the report and the UNPO campaign to expose how different development partnerships, business deals and preferential trade schemes make the liberal democracies complicit with states notorious for their appalling human rights records.

Kai Müller  (Executive Director International Campaign for Tibet Germany)  offered an analysis from Berlin’s perspective on how China's exports affect Western values. As an illustration, he recalled the Mercedes-Benz social media incident that shook German civil society. Following a post on the company's instagram account quoting the Dalai Lama, China's furious reaction led the German carmaker to issue an official "sincere apologies" to Beijing. Mr Müller also commented on the situation of Duisport, observing that the Duisburg region is particularly vulnerable to China’s influence given decades of struggle against unemployment and lack of investments. 

Marco Respinti (Director-in-Charge of Bitter Winter) highlighted that the Chinese Communist Party has taken advantage of the coronavirus crisis to wage massive propaganda abroad. The pandemic has been an “unexpected but welcome weapon” for China to use public health and foreign aid to shape a better image of China in countries severely affected by COVID-19, such as Italy. As a result, overall perception of Beijing as a benevolent partner led scores of Italians to thank China from their balconies last month.  Mr Respinti also drew attention to a report recently published by the organisation Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting, which documents China’s efforts to reshape “what is left of globalization”. 

MEP Raphaël Glucksmann (S&D) expressed concern over trade issues in what he defined as "a threat to the EU’s sovereignty". Criticising the EU institutions's belief in the myth that “the more you trade with a country, the more you are able to democratize it”, Mr Glucksmann pointed out that China has been succesful in imposing its political agenda through economic pressure. The French MEP also highlighted that the European institutions still lack a consistent definition of China - “is it a rival or partner?”. He further reinforced the importance of targeted sanctions on multinational companies and government officials responsible for human rights violations.

Former British MEP Irina von Wiese raised the issue of Brexit and how it has weakened the UK voice in the geopolitical stage. Today, without the powerful platform of the European Union, the UK’s isolation will make it “more susceptible to China's aggressive trade policies”. According to her,  businesses should have the obligation to promote due diligence in their supply chains, but often remain passive and silent. Moreover, she reminded that the UK has its own Magnitsky law, but it has not used the tool appropriately against government officials responsible for human rights violations. 

Fabio Massimo Castaldo (Vice President of the European Parliament) acknowledged that some EU member states are already under the heavy influence from China, having signed bilateral agreements. He emphasized the importance of stricter tools on due diligence, particularly regarding European companies involved in developing countries. In Africa, for instance, “China's counter narrative is that they are the ones who are supporting Africa's infrastructure development, whereas Europe has only exploited the continent”. Also related to the EU’s credibility, he warned that Brussels should avoid being “strong towards the weak and weak towards the strong”. He agreed with UNPO’s recommendation for improved European coordination and expressed his intention to work towards the institutionalization of the EP Working Group on responsible business conduct.

Dr Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy (PhD in EU-China relations and former advisor to the EU Parliament) commented on the framing that Beijing uses to advance a narrative that supports a China-centric world. By defining its relationships with states as “mutually beneficial” and refering to their investments as “win-win” and a “partnership”, China has been able shape a positive image of its presence abroad. In this regard, she noted that within the current structure of the EU, member states maintain their sovereignty regarding foreign policy, allowing China to hold bilateral meetings and to sign agreements with countries directly, bypassing the EU as a bloc. Dr Ferenczi concluded by calling for the EU to be alert, aware and ambitious in its relations with China.


The full recording of the webinar can be watched here.