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How to read between the lines of China and the EU’s diplomatic statements

Screens show Charles Michel, Ursula Von der Leyen, and Xi Jinping
REUTERS/Yves Herman/Pool
Same mirror, different reflections

The leaders of Europe and China met on Monday (June 22) for a high-level summit to discuss their relationship, and each side wrote up a statement summarizing the meeting afterwards. But a quick skim of those readouts might leave one with the mistaken impression that they attended two different meetings.

The divergence in the two sides’ descriptions is a vivid sign that the EU and China are not on the same page. That’s a problem, given that they represent roughly 35% of global GDP (pdf), and are in the process of negotiating a joint investment agreement that would allow European companies to do business more freely in China and lead to more ambitious cooperation between Brussels and Beijing on climate change. In a statement, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China criticized the summit for failing to produce enough concrete commitments or a joint communique, and pointed out that “the separate announcements regarding the outcomes of the summit had minimal overlap.”

The summit brought together European Council president Charles Michel, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang, and Chinese president Xi Jinping. A close side-by-side look at each sides’ respective statements—both what’s included and omitted, emphasized and played down—are illustrative of the broader tensions in the EU-China relationship.

Since 2019, EU officials have conceived of China as both a “strategic partner” and a “systemic rival.” Von der Leyen and Michel echoed this language in the press conference following the summit, by stating that China and the EU do not share “the same values, political system, or approach to multilateralism.” But the Chinese statement (link in Chinese) papers over those differences, emphasizing only the EU and China’s mutual respect for multilateralism, and stating that “there is no fundamental conflict of interest between China and Europe.”

The European statement emphasizes the bloc’s differences with Beijing on human rights, and specifically brings up the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong, and the detention of bookseller Gui Minhai by Chinese authorities.

The Chinese statement makes no mention of these points of contention. That’s not surprising: diplomatic statements are written to put forward a country’s best aspects and minimize the rest. But human rights concerns are a major and growing roadblock to the EU-China relationship. For example, the European Parliament adopted a resolution just last week that called on member states to file a case against the Chinese government‘s new Hong Kong law before the International Court of Justice for allegedly violating international agreements. And the EU has called for a human rights dialogue with China this year. So, the disconnect on this issue is important.

Steve Tsang, director of SOAS University of London’s China Institute, says Beijing’s official statements are mostly directed at domestic audiences, with the goal of projecting a positive image of China’s relations with the world. “If you accept that, then what they are doing with the EU meeting makes perfectly good sense,” Tsang says.

Martin Sebena, a doctoral researcher studying EU-China relations at the University of Hong Kong, and who used to work at the Slovakian embassy in Beijing, pays close attention to China’s diplomatic readouts of its meetings with foreign countries. No side ever presents a neutral account of a meeting, he said, but there are two major factors at play for Beijing: many more topics are deemed off-limits on the Chinese side, such that they have to be “reformulated or presented differently;” and China also has “more space to tweak the message because they’re not held accountable by their population.”

“If a democratic country said something outrageous in a press release that is clearly untrue they would be called out,” Sebena said. “But China doesn’t have these concerns.”

“China is of course welcome to issue its own press releases stating its own positions and interpretation of the outcome,” EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy Virginie Battu-Henriksson told Quartz. She pointed out that the Chinese statement referenced specific commitments made during the summit. “As was said by the two EU Presidents yesterday, now is the time to accelerate and to deliver on the commitments made.”

China’s ministry of foreign affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

This isn’t the first time there’s been controversy like this. China released a statement on May 27 about its foreign minister Wang Yi’s phone call with French foreign policy advisor Emmanuel Bonne, in which Bonne supposedly “reaffirmed” that France “has no intention of interfering in Hong Kong affairs.” But France pushed back on this characterization two days later, stating that it “fully concur[s]” with the EU’s expression of “grave concern” over Beijing’s moves to exert control over Hong Kong. While not an outright denial of China’s statement, it seems unlikely that Bonne would have pledged not to interfere in Hong Kong matters.

Earlier this month, the EU also called out China for its “selective” and “unacceptable” reporting of a meeting between Wang and Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat. The Chinese statement (link in Chinese) quoted Borrell as saying that the EU “seeks to have dialogue and cooperation with China on the basis of mutual respect, not rivalry or confrontation”—very different from Borrell’s portrayal of China as a “systemic rival,” as laid out in the EU’s statement.

Still, it’s not clear that Beijing’s latest statement will cause another controversy in Europe, especially since, as SOAS’ Tsang argues, “what the Chinese are guilty of is much more a matter of omissions than contradiction.” But with negotiations for a joint investment agreement already under way and a deal seeming more and more out of reach, what’s omitted from statements—from human rights to political values—could be just as informative as what’s included.

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