Roundtable at the EU-China Summit Plenary Meeting in June 2017
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Political values in Europe-China relations

A report by the European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC), December 2018

The European Union (EU) has committed itself to promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law. On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Palais Chaillot in Paris, the European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC) has published a new report investigating the role of political values in Europe-China relations.

What role do political values play in Europe-China relations 70 years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? 

China experts from seventeen leading European research institutions—including MERICS—have compared the role political values play in the foreign policies of European states and the EU toward the most powerful autocracy in the world, the People’s Republic of China. In essence, the results display four different patterns of behavior among European countries: vocal and active; active and discreet; passive; and passive and potentially counteractive.

MERICS researchers Lucrezia Poggetti and Kristin Shi-Kupfer contributed a chapter titled: “Germany’s promotion of liberal values vis-à-vis China: Adapting to new realities in political relations”. Their findings place Germany among those European countries that are active and vocal in promoting liberal political values in relations with China.

However, they also find that, despite their limitations, formal dialogues and quiet diplomacy remain Germany’s main tools to promote such values. The chapter also takes note of how the debate about China among German political and business elites is evolving, with some openly calling China a ’systemic challenge’ to liberal democracy, and a few others praising the alternative offered by China’s political system and development model.

The ETNC-report finds that three factors are of particular importance in making sense of differences in behavior among European countries:

  • First, while there has been a general downgrading of the importance of political values in the approaches to China by most European states, younger democracies have been more affected by this trend.
  • Second, states with a higher per capita gross domestic product tend to be more active in the field of political values in their relations with China. Close trade relations with China also correlate with a higher level of activity in this field.
  • Third, Chinese pressure has led some European states to reconsider their level of activity in promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Even so, they have not taken political values entirely off the agenda.

Despite China’s increased efforts to promote its image abroad, in all the countries analyzed the general public and large sections of the political elite and media hold negative views of China’s political system.

The European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC) is a gathering of China experts from a selection of European policy research institutes. It is devoted to the study of Chinese foreign policy and EU-China relations and facilitates regular exchanges among participating researchers.