February 9, 2005

February 9, 2005 | Commentary on Asia

Forgetting Tiananmen: Eager To Rebuild Trade, EU Ignores Rights Violations

We now know how the bureaucrats in the European Commission will mark the death of Zhao Ziyang, the general-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party who fought against the crushing of China's democracy movement at Tiananmen in 1989 and was purged for his troubles. They will apologize to China's new leaders for making such a fuss about it.

As Zhao lay on his deathbed in a Beijing hospital, with the secret police stationed outside his door, the European Union's new external affairs commissioner, Benita Ferraro-Waldner, was in Washington gently breaking the news that the European Commission intended to end its Tiananmen-era arms embargo on China.

She mentioned nothing about the Beijing regime's continuing and systematic violations of civil, political and religious rights. Human rights don't seem to matter in Brussels these days. The State Department's reaction was a shrug of the shoulders. "I don't have anything further," the department spokesman said.

The Pentagon reacted with a bit more alarm, but their concern was "the strategic balance in the Taiwan Strait," a worry that Ferraro-Waldner soothingly reassured her American friends the European Union would accommodate. Clearly, the message Ferraro-Waldner will take back to Brussels is that the Americans are resigned to the evaporation of the embargo.

Yet, a day after Ferraro-Waldner's meetings in Washington, the European Parliament in Strasbourg passed a resolution which called on members to "maintain the European Union embargo on trade in arms with the People's Republic of China and not weaken national restrictions on such arms sales."

China's diplomats have found the key to persuading the Eurocrats in Brussels to compromise the traditional democratic values of the European Parliament in Strasbourg: money. More importantly, the Chinese are disrupting the Atlantic alliance by forcing the Europeans to choose between Beijing and Washington - and the Europeans are tilting to Beijing.

The arms embargo was never about arms. The Chinese got all they need, cheaper and more appropriate, from Russia. Instead, the issue is China's national dignity.

The embargo was levied on the Chinese communists as a result of Tiananmen, and the Chinese regime believes that after 15 years the Europeans should forget about it. Now that Zhao, the last hero of Tiananmen, is dead, Beijing wants the Chinese people to forget, too.

A lot has happened in the years since the bloody 1989 crackdown. China has become the EU's second-largest export market (after the United States) and the world's third largest trading nation (after the United States and Germany). With promises of vast trade largesse, Beijing has been wooing the EU's two core members, France and Germany, to abandon the 1989 embargo and strive for a new "comprehensive strategic partnership" with China.

The Chinese have convinced the eager French and German leaders that EU protests of Beijing's dismal human rights record is the sole remaining obstacle to this partnership. Besides, as Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui pledged to European journalists in December, the arms embargo is solely symbolic; dropping it will have no real effect because it will be replaced by tighter EU arms export controls.

Unlike the Soviets of the 1980s, the Chinese have the economic clout to wrench the EU's elbow and force Europe to accept China's human rights record as the norm for the post-Cold War environment. In December, according to The Wall Street Journal, a Chinese aviation official confirmed the linkage between China's contract to buy $1.3 billion worth of Airbus's new A380 jumbo jets and the embargo's end with the shrugged comment, "It's understandable. Politics and economics can never be separated."

Shortly afterwards, a French official confirmed that Chinese President Hu Jintao linked Airbus and the embargo in a Sunday morning phone call to French President Jacques Chiraq.

Although Washington has been fighting a delaying action against easing the embargo for the past year, U.S. officials say privately they have little hope that it can be delayed much longer. And no wonder. Their main argument is U.S. self-interest, that the only possible use the Chinese would have for European weapons is to fight U.S. forces defending Taiwan. This logic is unpersuasive to Europeans like French President Jacques Chirac, who seem to see a grand strategic realignment of democratic Europe and communist China against U.S. unilateralism.

But consider this. When Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently sympathized with Chinese complaints that they were being "lumped in" with such other dictatorships as Zimbabwe and Burma, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and a host of lesser human and civil rights groups in the Atlantic community issued shocked press releases.

EU leaders tried to persuade their Chinese counterparts at the Brussels summit to ease up on political and religious repression, hinting "concrete steps" were needed to help justify easing the arms ban.

Frustrated Chinese leaders quickly followed up with a series of "concrete steps." Two days later, Beijing ordered the arrest of a well-known Protestant house-church pastor in Zhengzhou. Four days later, police detained three well-known dissident writers and after their release (the writers told American friends), police were stationed outside their doors and followed them and their families wherever they go, "walking just two or three steps behind."

Arrests of several other human rights activists and journalists followed, in what was clearly becoming a post-EU summit crackdown on independent intellectuals.

If the Bush administration truly wants to derail the EU's efforts to lift the embargo, it should ignore Brussels, where France and Germany dominate, and focus on the EU's member states, particularly the new ones, that still feel the sting of communist tyranny.

The U.S. position should pound on one fact: The EU arms embargo was levied on Beijing for massive human rights abuses in 1989, and since then the human rights situation has only gotten worse. Lifting the embargo will do nothing except tell the Chinese people that Europe has forgotten Tiananmen, so why can't they?

John Tkacik is research fellow for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the Heritage Foundation, Washington.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in DefenseNews Online