Liberals, Americans in general, people informed about the dismal human rights situation in China, historians – many groups and thinkers keep being amazed at how generously Europe treats China. Merkel and her ilk are called “lefties”, French politicians accused for selling out to the “fellow communists” in Beijing, and Italian politicians of ruining centuries of craftsmanship and tradition in the pursuit of profits.
Many of these accusations are true. The propaganda arm of the Chinese government, in the guise of the Confucius Institutes, is indeed operating freely and without much scrutiny on the continent. Compared to America, European China-policy is much more accommodating, and a socialist tradition in many European countries doesn’t make it look any better. But the real reason is much more pragmatic.
I used to be a diplomat for a EU country. A not very important country in the scheme of things. But even so, my movements and public statements always had to take into consideration what Beijing would say, how the CCP would react. Not because my government loves China, but because Europe is an aging continent, with many fewer young people spending, and many middle-aged technical experts invested in small and medium sized enterprises relying entirely on exports.
From 2000 to 2020, China quickly became the most important export market for these firms. European companies were not self-reliant. Their profits, from cars to machinery, came from China business. So when European politicians criticize China, they are imperiling their businesses, their constituents, and their own political futures. This is true especially for those countries where “export economy” is the dominant thinking, like in Germany.
The EU-China agreement to be ratified these days offers a lot more perks to Chinese companies than to Europeans, for a reason. An estimated 30% of profits of European industry is depending directly on China, another 15% indirectly. This doesn’t measure services and the financial sector.
For example, the agreement allows Chinese staff to work in the EU for three years while EU governments will not be allowed to impose quotas, other limits on the number of specialised workers that come into their country.
So if Europe seems spineless compared to a much younger, much more self-reliant America, that is true, not because of ideological reasons, but practical ones. It is because of Europe’s misguided policies that China could thrive and steal technology for decades. It is Europe’s conservative attitude to immigration that forces it to do business with states that ignore human rights.
As Europeans, we keep being “outraged” about what is happening in Hong Kong, and “concerned” about human rights in China. But we do not have the internal demand, the economic policies, and the political luxury to do otherwise. Europe has painted itself into a corner from which it will be hard to emerge.