China's European charm offensive disrupted by activists
A network of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have disrupted a week-long European charm offensive by Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, by demanding European leaders raise human rights.
Although it is a David v Goliath battle, the interventions underline how China is facing new headwinds as it seeks to expand access to the European markets, including 5G.
Wang’s tour began on Tuesday in Rome and is taking in the Netherlands, Norway, France and Germany. He is due to meet with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, on Thursday, but his meetings in Germany on Friday are regarded as the most significant due to the extensive trade links between China and Germany.
It is the foreign minister’s first visit abroad since February when he attended an “emergency meeting” on the coronavirus outbreak with his Asean counterparts in Laos. But Nathan Law, the Hong Kong pro-democracy activist now based in London, has already held one press conference in Rome and is due to hold another in Berlin.
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.
Beijing left the UK off its itinerary reflecting the level of British opposition to the imposition of emergency security laws in Hong Kong, as well as the UK government’s decision to ban Huawei from British 5G networks from 2027. But China wants to ensure that the British decision does lead other capitals, especially Berlin, to follow suit.
In a bid to persuade mainland Europe that China is a more reliable partner than Donald Trump, Wang’s primary message has been any new cold war would hold the whole world hostage.
Italy has cherished its economic links to China, but 27-year-old Law flew out to Rome to stage a press conference outside the Italian foreign ministry on Tuesday urging Italian politicians to recognise the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime, and the threat posed to democracies by Huawei. Law who fled Hong Kong this year warned: “If infrastructures such as telecommunications, ports, or even the nuclear industry are controlled or owned by Chinese companies, then this will pose a serious danger to the country ”.
The Italian foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, interlaced his respect for China at a joint press conference with a warning about Hong Kong’s new security laws, saying “it is essential to preserve the high degree of autonomy and freedom”. Di Maio, also under pressure from the US, was also cautious about 5G, saying Italy is open to investment but only in line with national security standards.
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 Christian Democratic Appeal politician Martijn van Helvert, another co-chair of Ipac. Hong Kong activists were delighted that 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 the Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese human rights activist.
But China will be most concerned with the climate surrounding the visits to Germany and France, two countries that have been most wary of Donald Trump’s rhetorical war on China.
In France a letter of protest about the meeting with Macron was sent by Ipac.
But the Chinese are presenting themselves as friends of greater European integration. China is also trading on the unpopularity of figures like Mike Pompeo in France, with the Chinese ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, suggesting the US secretary of state was “peddling lies” on Twitter.
Germany, China’s chief European trade partner, is seen by Hong Kong activists as the critical stage of the trip partly because German opinion on China is in flux, including within the ruling coalition. At the end of July, foreign minister, Heiko Maas, suspended Germany’s extradition agreement with China citing the year-long delay in Hong Kong’s elections and the arrests of 12 activists. The previous September Maas also met Wong in a move that infuriated the Chinese and reportedly Angela Merkel.
Merkel is pinning hopes on a German recovery partly based on exports to China and more broadly sees China as a natural technological partner in the modernisation of German industry. She had planned to host a meeting between China’s Xi Jinping and the leaders of all the EU member states in Leipzig next month. Currently the summit has been downgraded to a virtual meeting.
But prominent German Green MPs have been pressing for Huawei to be excluded in Germany’s 5G networks, and China is set to become a battleground in the struggle to succeed Merkel. China’s critics, admitting they are outgunned by the lure of the Chinese economy, sense that the tide may yet ebb on her argument that contact through trade will change China. Wang’s visit has been held against a backdrop of daily fresh reports in Hong Kong.