The European Union has issued a predictably weak and equivocal declaration on China's growing interference in Hong Kong. European leaders, apparently fearful of retaliation by Beijing, have signaled that economic interests will take priority over the EU's much-trumpeted founding values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Europe's continued appeasement of China indicates that the EU will be a weak link in efforts by Western democracies to confront the leadership in Beijing.
On May 29, the foreign ministers of EU member states met by video conference to discuss a common European response to China's plans to impose a sweeping law that would ban all activities in Hong Kong that are deemed to endanger China's national security.
Pro-democracy activists and lawmakers say the law, aimed at crushing political dissent, would effectively end the autonomy the city enjoys from Beijing under the "One Country, Two Systems" arrangement.
The unilateral move by China violates an international treaty — The Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong — an agreement signed in 1984 by which the United Kingdom, on July 1, 1997, transferred sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in exchange for a promise that the city would enjoy 50 years of limited autonomy under Chinese rule. Under the treaty, China is required to guarantee Hong Kong's autonomy for another 27 years.
On May 28, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and Canada issued a joint statement that reprimanded China over its approach to Hong Kong:
"China's decision to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong lies in direct conflict with its international obligations under the principles of the legally-binding, UN-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration. The proposed law would undermine the One Country, Two Systems framework. It also raises the prospect of prosecution in Hong Kong for political crimes and undermines existing commitments to protect the rights of Hong Kong people — including those set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights."
The British government also announced that it was considering granting citizenship to the nearly three million residents of Hong Kong. The move infuriated China, which fears a massive brain drain from Hong Kong that would jeopardize the city's role as a global financial and trading hub.
On May 29, U.S. President Donald J. Trump announced sanctions on China:
"China claims it is protecting national security. But the truth is that Hong Kong was secure and prosperous as a free society. Beijing's decision reverses all of that. It extends the reach of China's invasive state security apparatus into what was formerly a bastion of liberty.
"China's latest incursion, along with other recent developments that degraded the territory's freedoms, makes clear that Hong Kong is no longer sufficiently autonomous to warrant the special treatment that we have afforded the territory since the handover.
"China has replaced its promised formula of 'one country, two systems' with 'one country, one system.' Therefore, I am directing my administration to begin the process of eliminating policy exemptions that give Hong Kong different and special treatment.
"My announcement today will affect the full range of agreements we have with Hong Kong, from our extradition treaty to our export controls on dual-use technologies and more, with few exceptions.
"We will be revising the State Department's travel advisory for Hong Kong to reflect the increased danger of surveillance and punishment by the Chinese state security apparatus.
"We will take action to revoke Hong Kong's preferential treatment as a separate customs and travel territory from the rest of China.
"The United States will also take necessary steps to sanction PRC and Hong Kong officials directly or indirectly involved in eroding Hong Kong's autonomy and — just if you take a look, smothering — absolutely smothering Hong Kong's freedom. Our actions will be strong. Our actions will be meaningful."
Under U.S. law, Hong Kong enjoys special trade privileges. In November 2019, however, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which places new conditions on this status. The U.S. Secretary of State is now required to certify, annually, that Hong Kong maintains autonomy from mainland China. If this cannot be certified, the U.S. Congress can revoke Hong Kong's special trade status. This could jeopardize massive amounts of trade between Hong Kong and the United States and dissuade international investments there in the future.
On May 27, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that "no reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground." He added:
"After careful study of developments over the reporting period, I certified to Congress today that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under United States laws in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997."
In stark contrast to the measures announced by the United States and the United Kingdom, EU foreign ministers, under heavy pressure from Germany, have decided not to take any action against China. In a statement issued after the May 29 video conference of EU foreign ministers, the EU expressed "grave concern" about China's actions in Hong Kong but added that "EU relations with China are based on mutual respect and trust."
EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Josep Borrell added that the bloc has no plans for sanctions on either Beijing or Hong Kong:
"We will continue discussing and we will continue to reach out to Beijing. Our reaction has to be commensurate with the steps that have already been taken. We will continue trying to put pressure on the Chinese authorities in order to make them aware that this issue will affect the way we deal with some of the issues of mutual interest. But there is nothing more on the agenda."
When asked why the EU refused to sign the UK-US joint statement, Borrell replied: "We have our own statements. We do not need to join other people's statements."
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that the best way to influence China on the Hong Kong dispute was for the EU to maintain "dialogue" with Beijing:
"I think the past has shown that it is, above all, important to have a dialogue with China in which the EU very cohesively brings both its issues and principles to the fore, and then we will see where this dialogue leads."
Germany, which takes over the six-month rotating EU presidency on July 1, has announced that it will prioritize relations with China. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is particularly determined to proceed with a major EU-China summit to be held in the German city of Leipzig in September. She is reportedly under intense pressure from German automobile manufacturers, who are concerned about maintaining their access to the Chinese market.
The continued cowardice of European leaders is a reflection not only of Europe's geopolitical weakness and economic overdependence on China, but also of a moral vacuum in which they refuse to stand up for Western values.
In April, European officials caved in to pressure from China and watered down an EU report on Chinese efforts to deflect blame for the coronavirus pandemic. A few weeks later, the EU Ambassador to China, Nicolas Chapuis, allowed the Chinese government to edit an op-ed article signed by him and the 27 Ambassadors of EU member states, to mark the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations with China.
The EU authorized the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to remove references to the origins and the spread of the coronavirus from the article, published in China Daily, an English-language daily newspaper owned by the Communist Party of China.
An EU spokesperson said that the EU allowed China to revise the op-ed because Brussels "considered it important to communicate EU policy priorities, notably on climate change and sustainability..." Borrell later pledged that the EU will never again give in to Chinese censorship.
The head of the Bundestag foreign affairs committee, Norbert Röttgen, tweeted that Europe's credibility is on the line over its response to China:
"China aims to repress freedom, democracy & the rule of law in #HongKong. #Europe has to condemn such acts of wrongdoing & stand up for the freedoms of Hong Kong's citizens. It would be disastrous & a huge blow for Europe's credibility, if #China could rely on us keeping silent."
Noah Barkin, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, said that the EU should better use the leverage that it has over China:
"Europe can and should respond more forcefully than it has so far. German Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock has suggested that the EU—and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the host—cancel its looming summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Leipzig in September 2020 unless Beijing withdraws its national security legislation.
"That would send a strong signal that it will not be business as usual as long as China is violating the spirit of 'one country, two systems' in Hong Kong.
"Another step, which is reportedly being considered by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is to grant Hong Kong residents asylum in Europe. Germany welcomed two Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in 2019, so such a step would not be unprecedented.
"In an environment where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faces global outcry over its handling of the new coronavirus, is under acute political and economic pressure from Washington, and needs foreign investors to help revive its suddenly sputtering economy, the EU has more leverage with Beijing than it has had in quite a while. Using it would help counter the narrative—following two embarrassing recent incidents of self-censorship in the face of pressure from Beijing—that Europe is impotent and weak when it comes to China."
Theresa Fallon, Director of the Brussels-based Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies, added:
"The uncomfortable truth is that business elites, European bureaucrats, and many European politicians are out of touch with the public's sentiment on Hong Kong.
"The EU's anemic statement on Hong Kong is not going to keep anyone at Zhongnanhai, the seat of China's leadership, awake at night. EU High Representative Josep Borrell didn't even bother to tweet it. Beijing has taken Brussels's measure and does not fear their statements, which declare that they 'will continue to follow developments closely.'
"There has been a concerning culture of complacency and self-censorship in EU diplomacy with the People's Republic of China which has left the EU neutralized since 2016. If we turn to EU member states, the story is not much better. Merkel embraced trade with China in the hope that it would change China. But the reality is that contact with Beijing has eroded European values.
"Beijing understands that economic issues are paramount. Few European leaders pretend to even care about basic human rights in Hong Kong, and it will be difficult to get unanimity on this issue across Europe due to Beijing's economic statecraft.
"To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all that is needed for Hong Kong's 'one country, two systems' principle to perish is for good people to do nothing."
Andreas Fulda, a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham's Asia Research Institute, launched a petition calling for an end to Germany's appeasement of China. The petition, titled, "Europe can no longer afford Germany's failed China policy of 'change through trade,'" states:
"We need to talk about Germany. Let's start with an inconvenient truth: German governments, both past and present, have consistently prioritized trade with China over other enlightened German national interests, for example democracy and human rights. Such a commercially-driven China engagement, however, is not a value-free proposition.
"Whether it is the incarceration of 1.5 million Uyghurs and Kazakhs in mainland Chinese internment and labor camps, the suppression of Hong Kong's democracy movement, or the cover-up of Covid-19: German Chancellor Merkel does not seem to fully appreciate how continued Communist Party rule endangers peace, security and public health, not just in China, but around the world.
"On Monday, May 25, 2020, Europe's top diplomat Josep Borrell addressed a gathering of German Ambassadors. He told them that the European Union and its member states need to develop a 'more robust strategy' toward China. It is self-evident that the EU will struggle to develop a more assertive European China policy without the backing of Germany.
"But how can German diplomats change tack if Chancellor Merkel is unwilling to give directions? It is understandable that a nation which is guilty of the horrors of the Holocaust is wary of playing an assertive global leadership role. But there is also a real danger of an 'oblivion of power,' where Germany in fact underutilizes existing leverage in global affairs.
"Germany is often praised for facing up to its Nazi past. Never again has long been a guiding principle of an ethical German foreign policy. But how then can the German government remain silent when Uyghurs and Kazakhs are incarcerated, Hong Kongers have their civil and political liberties stripped away and Taiwanese are threatened with military annexation?
"China under General Secretary Xi Jinping is regressing on all fronts: human rights violations are now systemic and endemic, even criticism by Chinese academics are no longer tolerated, and the Chinese Communist Party is increasingly aping Russian disinformation strategies in Europe. Germany must now ask if it will continue to actively support such a regime.
"So far Chancellor Merkel has failed to answer this question. She has been unable to articulate what enlightened German ideational and material national interests look like beyond trade and investment. This is a serious shortcoming which not only undermines German foreign policy towards China but also makes it harder to develop a new European strategy towards China.
"At a time of heightened geopolitical tensions between the United States and Communist Party-led China, Europe can no longer afford Germany's unprincipled and failed China policy of 'change through trade.' In 2020 it is abundantly clear that China didn't liberalize and democratize as a result of German car manufacturers enriching themselves by selling cars to China.
"We need a Europe-wide approach which repositions the EU in light of Xi's increasing totalitarianism. While trade clearly matters, European values need to be defended, too. I ask you to sign this petition to put pressure on the German government. Chancellor Merkel should abandon her failed China policy and join Europe's search for a more principled approach towards China."
Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer, Europe's largest publishing company, recently argued that the time has come for Europe to reevaluate its relationship with China:
"Economic relations with China might seem harmless to many Europeans today, but they could soon lead to political dependence and ultimately to the end of a free and liberal Europe. The European Union has the choice. But above all Germany, Europe's economic motor, has the choice.
"Should we make a pact with an authoritarian regime or should we work to strengthen a community of free, constitutionally governed market economies with liberal societies? It is remarkable that German politics, with its love of moralizing, seems to throw its values out the window when dealing with China. What is at stake here is nothing less than what kind of society we want to live in and our concept of humanity....
"If current European and, above all, German policy on China continues, this will lead to a gradual decoupling from America and a step-by-step infiltration and subjugation by China. Economic dependence will only be the first step. Political influence will follow.
"In the end, it is quite simple. What kind of future do we want for Europe? An alliance with an imperfect democracy or with a perfect dictatorship? It should be an easy decision for us to make. It is about more than just money. It is about our freedom, about Article 1 of Germany's Basic Law, the greatest legal term that ever existed: human dignity."