EU must stand up to China, not just Trump

The shock­ing treat­ment of No­bel prizewin­ner Liu Xiaobo means Europe must chal­lenge China’s Xi Jin­ping on hu­man rights at the G20 sum­mit

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Natalie Nougayrède

This week Don­ald Trump and the Chi­nese pres­i­dent, Xi Jin­ping, trav­elled to Europe for a G20 sum­mit in Ham­burg. Who do you think would at­tract the most protests? Very prob­a­bly Trump. But what about at­ti­tudes to­wards the Chi­nese leader, whose regime is cur­rently pre­vent­ing the No­bel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo from trav­el­ling freely to re­ceive cancer treat­ment in a place of his choice? Surely this scan­dal war­rants a strong re­ac­tion.

Yet Liu’s op­pres­sors are count­ing on si­lence. Ham­burg is a unique oc­ca­sion to try to help an iconic dis­si­dent and, more than that, to push back against au­toc­racy and de­fend uni­ver­sal val­ues. Will this hap­pen? Will the pro­test­ers ready­ing them­selves to de­scend on the city also carry “Free Liu!” ban­ners?

Like Nel­son Man­dela and An­drei Sakharov in their time, Liu is a sym­bol of the strug­gle for dig­nity and hu­man rights across the world, not just in his own coun­try. His brav­ery is in­dis­putable, his cause is uni­ver­sal, and his plight is scan­dalous. His ill­ness was re­cently re­vealed. He is dy­ing, and he is kept un­der duress. His friends say he wants to travel out­side China with his wife. The Chi­nese lead­er­ship has so far re­fused the re­quest. It treats him as a crim­i­nal. In short, it is in­tent on mak­ing ev­ery­one for­get about Liu. That’s how dic­ta­tor­ships op­er­ate.

So who will cry out Liu’s name in Ham­burg? Along­side the an­ar­chists and rad­i­cal left­wing ac­tivists, hard­line mil­i­tants are promis­ing to cre­ate a “hell” of demon­stra­tions. There’s hardly any sign they have Liu in mind. More im­por­tantly, Europe’s lead­ers should be speak­ing with one voice on up­hold­ing a rules-based global or­der: will they in­clude UN hu­man rights con­ven­tions in that?

An­gela Merkel, the host of a sum­mit be­ing held in the city of her birth, has made it plain that con­fronting Trump on cli­mate change, trade and mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism are her pri­or­i­ties. “If you be­lieve you can solve the prob­lems of this world with iso­la­tion­ism and pro­tec­tion­ism, you are very wrong,” she’s warned. She has laid out the ques­tion that stands be­fore Europe: “What role will the con­ti­nent play in the years to come?” Note: she hasn’t said much about deal­ing with Xi on hu­man rights.

It’s easy to as­cribe this to the cyn­i­cism that comes with pro­tect­ing busi­ness in­ter­ests: China is an im­por­tant eco­nomic part­ner for Ger­many, and its po­lit­i­cal lever­age in­creases with ev­ery in­vest­ment or buy-up it se­cures in other Euro­pean coun­tries, too. Wit­ness Greece ve­to­ing an EU con­dem­na­tion of China’s hu­man rights record at the UN in June.

But a larger diplo­matic fac­tor is in play: China has po­si­tioned it­self as a power that might help Europe counter Trump’s views on cli­mate and trade, and is fast cap­i­tal­is­ing on Europe’s need for its co­op­er­a­tion – as Xi’s per­for­mance in Davos, to loud ap­plause, il­lus­trated.

Here’s the crux, how­ever: Europe feels on the up these days, and wants to show it is more con­fi­dent. Its lead­ers in­sist that, with Trump in the White House, there is a grow­ing need to be stead­fast on one of the EU’s key prin­ci­ples: an open world where in­di­vid­ual rights and in­ter­na­tional norms are pro­tected, not threat­ened. Ci­ti­zens want that, too. The sup­port­ers of au­to­crats such as Vladimir Putin – Xi’s in­ter­na­tional ally – have, af­ter all, hardly come out vic­to­ri­ous in re­cent elec­tions across the con­ti­nent. Against that back­drop, surely Liu’s case is one on which Europe’s voice must be heard much more clearly and com­bat­ively.

Liu’s tragedy is not just about one man – nor is it some­thing Europe should min­imise. Liu was jailed for pen­ning Charter 08, a po­lit­i­cal man­i­festo call­ing for ba­sic free­doms in China that was in­spired by the his­tory of eastern Euro­pean dis­si­dents in the com­mu­nist bloc. Its par­tic­u­lar ref­er­ence was to Cze­choslo­vakia’s Charter 77, with Vá­clav Havel at its helm. He went on to be­come pres­i­dent of his coun­try in 1990, and in many ways acted as a moral voice in Europe.

At a time of demo­cratic back­slid­ing in eastern Europe, a whole­hearted de­fence of Liu would help ce­ment the EU’s com­mit­ment to its val­ues and de­mon­strate an aware­ness of what courage can do in pol­i­tics. The “power of the pow­er­less” (to quote the ti­tle of one of Havel’s mem­o­rable texts) is what Liu sym­bol­ises.

Mem­o­ries of this part of Europe’s his­tory should be rekindled – they carry ur­gent mes­sages for to­day. And there is an­other spe­cial Euro­pean re­spon­si­bil­ity here: like Liu, the EU was awarded the No­bel peace prize (in 2012), in recog­ni­tion of six decades of work in pro­mot­ing “peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, democ­racy and hu­man rights”.

Sadly, as Liu’s fate hangs in the bal­ance there has been only a mod­est level of sup­port for him in EU state­ments. France has in­di­cated it would wel­come him. Euro­pean diplo­mats in Bei­jing are said to be closely fol­low­ing Liu’s sit­u­a­tion. But these steps fall short of ex­pressly – and of­fi­cially – ad­dress­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of what is at stake. Liu’s bat­tles should rank along­side those of other ap­plauded em­blems of non­vi­o­lent re­sis­tance to op­pres­sion, such as Martin Luther King or Aung San Suu Kyi.

Xi will ap­pear be­fore the world’s cam­eras at the first Trump-era G20. Now is the time for Euro­peans who care about the world they want to live in to show sol­i­dar­ity on hu­man rights – not just on cli­mate and trade. Now is the time for some nam­ing and sham­ing. If the Chi­nese leader gets through this sum­mit with­out any pres­sure over Liu’s full free­dom, the il­lib­eral state model he pro­motes will be strength­ened. No one would stand to gain.

Tar­get­ing Trump in Ham­burg is un­der­stand­able, but we can con­fi­dently hope Amer­ica’s demo­cratic sys­tem will one day get the bet­ter of him. There are no such checks and bal­ances in China, as Hong Kong dis­si­dents well know. Chi­nese hu­man rights ac­tivists have only their courage to count on, and the hope that the out­side world will some­how show sup­port.

If you’re get­ting ready to protest in Ham­burg, think about Liu Xiaobo. This is the time and place to act: to show you care about one man’s brave strug­gle against a regime’s im­punity. It wouldn’t be about “western im­pe­ri­al­ism”: it would be about peo­ple power. Re­mem­ber the man who in 1989 stood in front of a col­umn of tanks in Tianan­men Square. Liu is like that man.

Now is the time for Euro­peans who care about the world to show some sol­i­dar­ity on hu­man rights

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