We must choose our China policy: Commerce or conscience?

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We must dare to hold China responsible for the scandalous treatment of Uyghurs, Christians and other minorities. We cannot continue to do commerce with a heavy conscience. Violations of human rights must have a price. To begin with, the European Parliament must quickly replace products from collaborating suppliers.

When you walk into the European Parliament these days you are swept with a feeling of solemnness. This is just down to the lack of people due to COVID, but also as we are welcomed by a fever scanner made by Hikvision: the Chinese company which also supplies the surveillance cameras for the Chinese “re-education camps” with hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs.

It should be a point of reflection that, as an institution, we criticize China for scandalous human rights violations, while ordering equipment from the same Chinese state companies who make these violations possible.

We should not be dragged into these unhelpful situations any more. Our China policy must make a clear choice: commerce or conscience?

We believe it’s our obligation to opt for conscience, for human rights, for people’s lives. We cannot accept that China will make people disappear and make life miserable for minorities. The spotlight is now on Uyghurs, but this bad treatment also affects Christians, the people of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong and potentially also Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party wants its 1.4 billion inhabitants to think and live the same as much as possible. As little freedom of speech, freedom of religion or democracy as possible.

The European Parliament has a proud history of supporting human rights. We consider that these rights apply universally, beyond our borders. That is why we reward our Sakharov prize for freedom of thought also to non-Europeans.

If talking does not work, we have to be bold. As the European Union, we must be prepared to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions.

As a consumer, you wouldn’t buy products from a company who mistreats its employees. Then why would we want to do business with governments who systematically oppress minorities?

Of course, China is big and powerful. China is a major political and military power, it has significant economic interests in European companies. Many jobs are involved in the multi-billion investment in new rail and shipping routes between China and the EU.

But on the other hand: we have become too dependent on China for masks, medicines and more. For too long we have seen China as an emerging market to sell our cars, flower bulbs and washing powder. Multinationals could produce cheaply in this low-wage country. But now, China appears to be using its economic power for other things, such as political influence and to ignore reasonable complaints about human rights.

We have already seen examples of European governments yielding to Chinese pressure. The Greek government already prevented EU criticism of China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea in 2017, something that probably had to do with the Chinese investment in the Greek port of Piraeus. Germany has not yet dismissed Chinese Huawei: is that related to the Chinese threat to ban German cars?

We should not continue to accept all this. We must fight for a safer future for Uyghurs, Christians and other minorities in China and around the world. If necessary, that may cost us some trade relations. However, we must make our peace with this, because human lives and human rights anywhere are worth much more.

Actions speak louder than words. So, as the European Parliament, we should quickly replace the controversial Chinese scanners at the entrance. Obviously, it should be replaced by equipment that is “made in the EU” and with clean hands.

We have sent a letter to President Sassoli of the European Parliament to make this happen. Let it be a first step to a China-policy that is more credible and more conscience-based.

By Bert-Jan Ruissen
MEP from the Netherlands and member of the ECR Group in the European Parliament.

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