Uyghur and Tibetan Human Rights Activists Greet Chinese Foreign Minister in Europe

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 27: Foreign Minister of China Wang Yi addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on September 27, 2019 in New York City. World leaders from across the globe are gathered at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, amid crises ranging from …
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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Europe for a “charm offensive” this week but found himself shadowed by human rights activists and Hong Kong democracy champions.

The UK Guardian noted that Wang did not bother trying to charm the United Kingdom, which is furious about China’s oppression of Hong Kong, and has decided to ban Chinese telecom company Huawei from its 5G network development. One of Wang’s top objectives is to persuade other European customers not to turn against Huawei.

“In every capital Wang visits, he is being accompanied by protests from local MPs and MEPs linked together in the new Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (Ipac), although in some countries parliament isn’t sitting,” the Guardian reported.

Wang also had to contend with Hong Kong democracy activist Nathan Law popping up in Rome and Berlin to give press conferences while the Chinese foreign minister attempted to push his charm offensive in those cities. Law warned the Italians and Germans it is dangerous to let the Chinese Communist Party have access to their advanced wireless networks or other key industries, stressing the aggressive and authoritarian nature of the Chinese government.

Law presented the Italian government with a letter portraying the security law China imposed on Hong Kong as a “flagrant violation” of the legal obligations China accepted when it resumed control of the island. He called on Italy to speak up for “the fundamental rights and freedoms which Hong Kong people were promised before the handover in 1997 and which are now being removed and threatened on a daily basis.”

“With the newly-implemented national security law, our autonomy is completely annihilated and our democracy never arrived,” Law said in Rome.

Law was supported by 17 members of the Italian parliament, who wrote their own letter urging their government to stand up for Hong Kong’s autonomy and denounce the oppression of minority groups like the Uyghurs.

Some of these European nations have so much money wrapped up in China trade that they cannot afford to listen to complaints about human rights, no matter how uncomfortable their support for the ugly regime in Beijing becomes. Things got uncomfortable in the Netherlands and Norway, as the Guardian reported:

In the Netherlands, the Dutch foreign affairs committee, angry it had not been informed of Wang’s visit, voted to ask him to meet with them to discuss human rights, including the Uighur Muslims, but he declined. The call for the meeting was made by the Christian Democratic Appeal politician Martijn van Helvert, another co-chair of Ipac. Hong Kong activists were delighted that the Dutch foreign minister, Stef Blok, described developments in Hong Kong as “worrying”.

In Norway on Wednesday Wang, seeking to finalise a free trade agreement, met the full Norwegian political class but again found an Ipac co-chair, this time the liberal leader, Trine Skei Grande, leading a human rights protest in Oslo. Wang was also challenged by the press. Asked about a call for the Norwegian Nobel committee to grant the peace prize to the people of Hong Kong, Wang warned against politicising the prize. Norway was thrown in the diplomatic deep freeze for six years after the committee in 2010 gave the prize to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese human rights activist.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) saw Wang “on the defensive” as he strove to justify the crackdown in Hong Kong to the Italians, and became the focus of an unusually combative exchange between the Dutch parliament and administration. Wang running into trouble in Italy is especially significant because Italy is the only European country currently participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The most interesting diplomatic and economic struggle is likely to be waged in Germany, which is banking on trade with China for economic recovery after the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic but has some hang-ups about China’s appalling environmental record and its treatment of Hong Kong.

Wang was fairly confrontational in Germany, rejecting all criticism of China’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslims, Tibetans, and Hong Kong as unacceptable interference in China’s internal affairs. 

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas claimed his government is “working on the basis that transparency would be best suited for dealing with” the Uyghur issue, but such vague diplomatic bromides are unlikely to satisfy human rights activists. Human Rights Watch (HRW), for example, urged European governments to work much harder to hold China accountable for its offenses.

“France, Germany, and the Netherlands have all expressed concerns about the Chinese government’s rights violations, including at the Human Rights Council. But rhetoric devoid of consequential action will achieve little in stemming Beijing’s onslaught on human rights. These governments should match the courage and ambition of human rights defenders across China and these UN experts, and tell Foreign Minister Wang to expect clear demands for accountability at September’s council session,” HRW wrote upon Wang’s arrival in Europe, referring to a “searing condemnation of China’s rights record” written by U.N. human rights experts in June.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim of the Center for Global Policy in Washington, DC castigated the Europeans for selling out their human rights principles on Wednesday, calling out the Germans for their absurd insistence that China can somehow be liberalized through trade — a strategy with a solid track record of not working at all since the 1990s.

“Individually, our countries have allowed themselves to become dependent on China to the extent that even mighty Germany feels they cannot oppose a clear genocide. The European Union, however, does have the heft and the economic might to put our foot down and re-affirm our founding values by standing true to the pledge we have made that we will ‘never again’ allow genocide to happen. If the European Union cannot or will not do this, then what is even the point?” Ibrahim wrote.

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