News | Europe - China The Fine Line Between a “Dialogue of Civilizations” and a “Dialogue of the Deaf”

On the Chinese perspective on the European Union



Chunchun Hu,

Chinese President Xi Jinping and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speak with European Council President Charles Michel meeting in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speak with European Council President Charles Michel meeting in Beijing, China, 7 December 2023. Photo: IMAGO / Newscom / EyePress

Discussion in Europe about how we are witnessing a “Zeitenwende” (turning point), German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s widely reported description of the current tendencies shaping the international order, is something which has also been intensively discussed in the Chinese academy. But here, people are more reserved about this new German or European expression, as it is not only since the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, for example, that relations between the European Union and the People’s Republic of China have been strained. The cracks have been showing since at least 2019, when the EU designated China as a “partner, competitor, and systemic rival”. The downward spiral was hastened by the sanctions the European Union imposed on Chinese natural and juridical persons in 2021 and hit their lowest point to date in 2022 due to Russia’s war.

Chunchun Hu runs the European studies Master’s programme at the Shanghai Academy of Global Governance and Area Studies, Shanghai International Studies University.

The comments of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell may have had a significant impact on this cooling of relations. On 6 April 2022, he reported soberly before the European Parliament on the meagre results of the 23rd EU–China summit held by video conference and spoke of a “dialogue of the deaf”. The difference between that and the Chinese perspective on the exchange between China and the EU could not have been greater: in 2018, prior to the EU’s publication of its tripartite description, China had still placed the characterization of the relationship as an “inter-civilizational dialogue” at the centre of its third comprehensive position paper on its EU policy.

Does China Have Trouble Understanding?

The lack of understanding in dealing with the EU is not only China’s, and has much more to do with the nature of the procedural character of European integration. Former US foreign secretary Henry Kissinger’s joke, which has become proverbial, gets at the core of the issue: “Who do I call when I want to talk to Europe?”

The EU as a concept was introduced with the signing of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. But in its current guise it has existed in the strict sense of international law only since the Treaty of Lisbon was ratified in 2009 — but even that is debatable. Theoretically, the political system of the EU functions like most parliamentary democracies with a federal structure. But in practice the EU, with its democratic deficit, is not only standing in its own way, but its political significance is expressed in the low turnouts at European elections.

At the level of everyday experience, it is hardly possible to expect from a Chinese person that they develop an awareness of the EU. For the first step towards entering the EU, namely the entry visa, continues to be issued by the individual member states, which handle it differently according to their varying criteria and interests. This minor example symbolically illustrates the dilemma of the EU: it has constructed an extremely complicated system that is extremely opaque to those on the outside, and which is continually being developed. Seen positively, the EU is a step ahead of political, social, and cultural developments in many regions and countries; seen negatively, for many EU citizens, the EU is a well-intentioned, but essentially elitist, out-of-touch project. For other countries, the EU is something indeterminate, lying somewhere between a real, artificial creation and a kind of wishful thinking.

Interestingly, the Chinese foreign ministry’s website places the EU in the category of “international and regional organizations” alongside the UN, BRICS, the International Olympic Committee, and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. The EU would surely not agree with such a categorization.

Yet this Chinese perspective is not surprising. For China has made its way into today’s international system only tentatively, joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. The Chinese view of the world has been deeply influenced by the economic era of high globalization and is fundamentally marked by the European concept of the nation state — a topic that will be treated separately and in detail below. China, which has pursued a nationally oriented centralism, and the EU, which strives toward a post-national construct incorporating both supranational and international elements, have fundamentally divergent perspectives on one another and on the political constitution of large societies, which often lead to misunderstandings.

In this sense it is vital to reconstruct the development of China’s understanding of the EU, based on the most significant events in the history of EU–China relations, and on the key documents of China’s EU policies.

A Maturing Partnership

Shortly before the turn of the millennium, in 1998, the two sides established the mechanism of an annual summit. Three years later, a “comprehensive partnership” was negotiated, which in 2003 was expanded into a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. The same year, China published its first comprehensive position paper on its EU policy. It sketched out China’s EU policy goals, the areas of and plans for cooperation as well as related measures to be implemented over the next five years.

In this paper, the EU is designated as “a strong community, and the most integrated one in the world”, whose global economic significance, in particular, is only destined to increase given the advanced state and “irreversible” nature of EU integration. Between China and the EU, it argues, there should be “no fundamental conflict of interest” — despite the differences resulting from varying historical experiences, cultural traditions, political systems, and varying levels of economic development. The commonalities ought to prevail: in the international order, both parties are committed to “democracy in international relations and strengthening the role of the UN”. The two parties, the paper notes, are also in a position to complement one another economically, technologically, and culturally.

The European argument for the paradigm shift in its China policy, namely that Europe’s reaction was caused by China’s own changes, gives the impression of being a clumsy pretext. For what country, what society, and what economy is not undergoing constant change?

This important document should not be considered the result of a solely Chinese initiative. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the EU’s China policy was primarily about leading China towards the Western model, which at the time was viewed as the most advanced, and a model for others to follow. Phrases such as “stronger integration of China into the international community”, “supporting China on the way to an open society”, “stronger integration of China into the global economy”, etc. are found in the 2001 paper EU Strategy towards China. In 2003, when China presented its first paper on its EU policy, the Commission of the European Communities spoke of a “maturing partnership”, which was characterized by “ever closer strategic coordination in many areas”. The EU treated China as a “global player” and recognized in its cooperation with China the “shared responsibilities in promoting global governance”.

The basic optimism of the 2000s, which reverberated with desires for the “end of history”, and by which both China and Europe were gripped — who wasn’t? — finds its continuation in the China–EU 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation (2013), written by both parties, and China’s second paper on its EU policy (2014), which bears the suggestive title “Deepen the China–EU Comprehensive Strategic Partnership for Mutual Benefit and Win–win Cooperation”. The document proposes that the parties strive for comprehensive cooperation and coordination in politics, the economy, education, culture, etc. Even after Brexit and the election of Trump, the course remained largely unchanged in China’s third paper on its EU policy (2018). For China, the EU remained the region with the “highest degree of integration” and played “an important strategic role” internationally. China announced a “fourfold partnership” with the EU on the issues of peace, growth, reform, and civilization. This agreement was finalized in 2014.

Systemic Rivalry Overshadows Everything

The year 2019 marked a turning point in relations between China and the EU; there was a paradigm shift in the course of a possible political rapprochement with China, which had been pursued since the 1990s. In its paper EU–China – A Strategic Outlook (2019), the EU views China’s ambition to be a “leading world power” with mistrust, and sets itself the goal of a “more realistic, assertive, and multifaceted approach”. This means that the EU now considers its old China policy to be insufficiently realistic and assertive and has decided to deal with China in a “differentiated” way, i.e. not only based on cooperation. The former partner China now had a complicated and not uncontradictory set of three roles to play: partner, competitor, and systemic rival. For China, this trio of roles — and above all the emphasis on that of systemic rival — bears concerning parallels to the US’s China policies since the Trump presidency. The Biden administration’s Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken put it as follows in 2022: “We’ll compete with confidence; we’ll cooperate wherever we can; we’ll contest where we must.”

Germany has played a pioneering role in the EU’s attempt to reposition itself regarding its China policy. Yet surprisingly it was not politics that broke new rhetorical ground in the German context, but business. In January 2019, it was the Federation of German Industries, which in a position paper determined that there was “competition” between the two “systems”: liberal market economies, on the one hand, and the Chinese model on the other. The scope for cooperation with China envisaged by the EU underwent a significant narrowing, which is still ongoing.

Those on the Chinese side are astonished at Europe’s renunciation of its own earlier China policy as well as at the opportunism that is reflected in its selective, Eurocentric ascription of a specific role to China. In this new approach to framing narratives about China, instrumental reason is disguised as a moral value. The narrative of EU weakness in the face of China’s growing power is also hardly convincing. It is more the expression of a subjectively perceived loss of meaning for the EU in a multi-polar world, whose dynamic development can no longer be dominated by the West alone. China officially contradicts this new perspective on the part of the EU, warning it against emphasizing “systemic rivalry” and “competition” and encouraging it to return to “cooperation” instead.

How does China explain the pivot in the EU’s China policy from “cooperation” to “systemic rivalry”? We can note the following three perspectives:

First: The EU has let itself be swept along above all by the upheavals of world politics, which has undergone a fundamental shift in recent years. The EU has discovered “geopolitics” as a characterization of the zeitgeist and a concept according to which it attempts to orient itself strategically. The logic of globalization, i.e. the primacy of economic interconnections and the division of tasks to maximize profit and efficiency for all, has now been replaced by the logic of geopolitics, i.e. the primacy of political economy. In specialist circles, 2024 has already been declared as the year of Europe’s “geo-strategic turn”.

The US has not only been viewing China as its greatest long-term challenge for years now, but is also taking its comprehensive policy of decoupling very seriously, according to which a division would arise between the part of the global economy led by the US, and the Chinese economy.  But since the introduction of the new term “de-risking” by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in March 2023, Washington’s narrative has begun to sound European.

In a sense, historical developments in Europe and China resemble one another: in both cases, integration represents at once a historical consequence and challenge.

Second: the European argument for the paradigm shift in its China policy, namely that Europe’s reaction was caused by China’s own changes, gives the impression of being a clumsy pretext. For what country, what society, and what economy is not undergoing constant change? Hasn’t the UK left the EU? Can the EU explain to the rest of the world — and which EU with how many member states — where it will be in ten years’ time?

The fact that China has been undergoing a long-term reform or modernization process since the late 1970s is something the EU has known about since long before 2019. Every sovereign state — even the EU is sovereign according to international law — should act as it sees fit. To cite others as the motive of one’s own actions is actually a testimony to the poverty of one’s own power of political judgement.

Third: the accusation that China fails to respect human rights and international law is seen as a justification that must be taken seriously — the keywords being: Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, officially named “the Republic of China”. For this accusation has an impact on China’s domestic policy. It has already helped the incumbent Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen to a resounding electoral win in 2020, in light of the uprisings in Hong Kong, loosely following the motto: we in Taiwan will not let the same thing happen to us as Hong Kong.

Since Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, Taiwan has increasingly become the focus of the EU’s fictional China narrative. The recent win by Lai Ching-te of the ruling DPP party at Taiwan’s presidential elections on 13 January this year has the potential to set off a major crisis in international politics and the global economy in the coming years. Yet the overall Chinese reaction to the EU’s accusations fundamentally differs from the assumptions made on the EU side, a fact that is astonishing for Europe, and one that merits closer attention.

Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan… and Empathy for the “Project of a Modern China”

The human rights and international law violations of the worst imaginable kind in Xinjiang and Hong Kong — and also in Taiwan in future — have supposedly been decisive for the EU’s new appraisal of China. On the Chinese side, the problems in those regions are well known, but the Chinese discourse about them is different. There are three important and interrelated aspects that are not commonly known in Europe, which explain the differences of opinion between China and the EU on human rights and international law.

First: the contemporary understanding of human rights, i.e. in the sense of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), should not be simply monopolized by the Western democracies as if it were only logical that that understanding is their own achievement. Many European states that gladly adopt the designation of so-called Western democracy were still colonial powers at the time of the negotiations over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 1940s.

The fact that China, with its claim to self-determination and non-intervention in its own affairs, shut itself off from the universalism represented by Western liberal democracies, is merely a story that the West likes to tell. The actual history is that it was representatives from China and other Third World countries who succeeded in asserting the validity of universal human rights against the European colonial powers, who would have gladly excluded “uncivilized” societies and non-sovereign peoples. In the context of the ideological confrontations of the Cold War — especially following the Carter administration’s instrumentalization of human rights as a means of global political power — this line in the genealogy of the discourse of human rights was suppressed, first selectively and then later, following the victory of the Western democracies over the socialist–communist Eastern Bloc, entirely.[1]

For China, the internal and external challenges involved in advanced modernization have increased immensely.

The conflict between China and the EU over human rights has also thrown up two questions of procedure, which are often confused with questions of content: according to our current understanding, human rights are universal, but they are not context-free. This raises the question of whether negotiations about these affairs should be held at the national level or as part of the international community. It is debatable whether civil and political rights should be granted priority over economic, social, and cultural rights — which are also human rights — or whether it should be the other way around. Due to their different historical experiences and cultural traditions, China and the EU have developed different approaches. In European discourse, the domestic Chinese perspective and historical experience is scarcely paid any heed.

The Chinese answer to the question of who is the responsible negotiating authority is unequivocal: the Chinese state, which was won only through the loss of many lives in revolutions and defensive and civil wars, is sovereign. From a Chinese perspective, the often propounded post-national slogan “human rights before sovereignty” has caused more problems than it has solved. The fact that Hong Kong’s former colonial ruler Great Britain has accused the People’s Republic of China of failing to abide by the handover conditions and of violating international law only makes a mockery of the demands of historical justice.

The question of the weighting of human rights has actually existed since the beginning of negotiations over the modern concept of human rights. Ignorance should not lead us to dismiss a concern with this question as merely a Chinese fixation — just as, formerly, Soviet influences were rumoured to have played a role.[2] The extension of human rights to include economic, social, and cultural rights represents a milestone in the development of human rights discourse.

Second: At the level of the phenomena, Xinjian, Hong Kong, and Taiwan all involve quite different conflicts. Yet in a historical perspective of the longue durée — a perspective that is essential and indispensable for understanding China — the problems in these regions have one thing in common: they are all integration problems of the Chinese state at the territorial peripheries of premodern, dynastic China. Whether in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, we encounter unstable identities that have difficulty adapting to modern Chinese identity for religious, colonial, and ideological reasons. If the EU wants to discuss human rights problems in a way oriented toward progress and solutions, then this historical aspect should be more strongly incorporated into the discussion, rather than focusing on the ideological difference between the two sides.

Third: As the EU expects historical understanding for European integration, or Germany expects understanding for its “coming to terms with the past”, a balanced appraisal of China necessitates empathy for the “project of a modern China”. The phrase refers to the process of transformation in which China has found itself since its defeat in the Opium Wars of the 1840s. At that time, China, facing the distressing superiority of the European colonial powers, was confronted with a fateful question of its continued existence or non-existence at a civilizational scale: “Would China be able to continue to exist in its historically developed form? Or did China risk suffering the same fate as other ancient empires that had broken up into small, newly constituted states, thereby becoming history?”

China set itself a tremendous challenge. The century-long project “signifies a doubly mammoth task: the simultaneous transformation of both cultural and political conditions. That involves transcending Confucianism’s claim to universality and at the same time finding a sovereign response to the comprehensive challenge constituted by Western modernity”. It was in this context that the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921, which, with its conception of the development of a Chinese state, ultimately prevailed against a number of competing political forces. After the founding of the second Chinese republic, the People’s Republic, in 1949, the project was continued with a dedication that led to numerous trials and tribulations. It was only with the reform policies of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s that the utopian sense of reality was replaced by a pragmatic one.

Yet in a sense, historical developments in Europe and China resemble one another: in both cases, integration represents at once a historical consequence and challenge. The difference lies in the respective historical experiences of the two places: after the devastation of two world wars, European integration was to occur through a framework at once supra- and international. In China, by contrast, following the traumatizing centuries of “half-colonization” by European and Japanese colonial powers, and the collapse of the over two-thousand-year-old empire, the idea was to restore integration and defend it against foreign domination by means of a new state that maintains continuity.

What Now?

For the EU, China is already a political and economic world power that has loudly and clearly articulated its demand for a newly negotiated slice of the famous “pie of global prosperity” — at the expense of the established powers. That illuminates the unease and the about-turn in the EU’s China policy in recent years. Yet from the Chinese perspective, there has been no fundamental change in the per capita development gap between China and the EU. But the EU’s perception of China may well have a strong influence on how China sees the EU.

Essentially China looks to Europe with admiration, now as before, and, despite Brexit, has continued to affirm its support for the project of European integration. For China, Europe, with its ideal and material accomplishments, remains a model that must be closely studied. This is also why the number of Chinese students in the EU consistently remains at a high level. In German universities alone, in the 2022–2023 winter semester there were 42,541 Chinese students enrolled.

At the same time, there is increasing incomprehension at much of what is currently taking place in Europe, including the rising strength of right-wing extremism and the “crisis of cultural erosion” that it has unleashed. We look on with serious concern about the wars that could be sparked in Europe and then exported to the rest of the world. The gap between Europe’s claims and the actual reality seems to have increased.

For China, the internal and external challenges involved in advanced modernization have increased immensely. On the one hand, there is the struggle with slowing economic growth, high youth unemployment, demographic change, and declining birth rates, etc.; on the other, the hegemonic power of the US is doing everything it can to slow down or hinder Chinese development, particularly in terms of technology, and to defend its own leadership position. The Trump administration employed hybrid methods to this end, including a consciously escalated trade war and stricter controls on Chinese investment in the US and on Chinese access to US technologies. This containment policy toward China has bipartisan support, and has been taken over by the Biden administration in the name of national security concerns, as proclaimed by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in April 2023 at the Washington think-tank Brookings.

Exchange and communication between China and Europe should be substantially facilitated and supported.

To avoid a further heightening of tensions, the current state of the problem leads to at least the following shared to-do list, which contains proposals based more on principles than proposals for concrete projects.

First: China and the EU must urgently do everything they can to prevent the world splitting into two hostile camps. For this, both sides must take conciliatory steps and lift sanctions. The sanctions have become counterproductive and have caused more problems than they have solved.

Second: we must speak with each other not over each other. Even a “dialogue of the deaf” can provoke reflection. The proven dialogue mechanisms between both sides regarding politics, the economy, society, culture, etc. need to be bolstered and developed — despite and precisely because of differences of opinion.

Third: a pragmatic approach is needed that enables a return to cooperation. The “all or nothing” approach is unhelpful here. The parties should start with the areas or issues where the differences of opinion are smallest, for example in working together to take coordinated action against climate change.[3] This also includes internationally coordinated approaches to pandemics or similar medical emergencies, as both parties paid a high price in the Covid pandemic.

Forth: exchange and communication between China and Europe should be substantially facilitated and supported. This includes lowering barriers to entry visas, or visa-free entry options, more scholarships and funding for exchange students, more direct flights, etc.

Fifth: in the long term, country- and region-specific competencies need to be promoted in schools, universities, and research institutes, to increase the capacity for mutual empathy. Each side’s knowledge of the other has gaps and each side maintains narratives about the other that need to be replaced.

Translated by Marty Hiatt and Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

[1] For an exhaustive treatment of the development of the discourse of human rights in the late 1940s, see Lydia H. Lius, “Schatten des Universalismus: Die unerzählte Geschichte der Menschenrechte um 1948”, in C. Hu et al. (eds.), Im Spannungsverhältnis zwischen Selbst- und Fremdverstehen: Globale Herausforderungen und deutsch-chinesische Kulturbeziehungen, Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2023, p. 225–263. In the negotiations over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as part of the UN, Chinese diplomat Peng Chun Chang (1892–1957) played a prominent role. See the journals of John P. Humphreys, the first director of the Division of Human Rights at the UN. John P. Humphreys, On the Edge of Greatness: The Diaries of John Humphrey, First Director of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, A.J. Hobbins (ed.), 4 vols. Montreal: McGill University Libraries, 1994–2000.

[2] John Humphrey, “Human rights and Authority”, The University of Toronto Law Journal, vol. 20, no. 4 (1970), pp. 412–421. Humphrey (415) recalled the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The Declaration did, however, bring into balance the claims of the new economic, social, and cultural rights with those of the traditional civil and political rights. Both kinds of rights are recognized and defined. You might think — and I am sure that many commentators will say — that this was due to Soviet influence. Soviet influence was important but not exclusive; and the proof of this is that the first draft, in the preparation of which the Soviets hat no part (I knew because I drew it up myself) included all the economic and social rights. If you must identify an historical source it was, I think, enlightened liberalism and social democracy.”

[3] Regarding the tense global geopolitical situation, professor of social science at Columbia University Adam Tooze sees in combatting the climate crisis the lowest common denominator of international politics. Podcast by Petra Pinzler and Stefan Schmitt, “Es wäre Glück, wenn es keinen Krieg zwischen China und Amerika gibt”, 1 November 2023, [last accessed 09 January 2024].