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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

The great Beijing-Brussels disconnect

July 8, 2008

By Axel Berkofsky
Asia Times
Jul 8, 2008

Europe doesn't like rocking the boat. Especially with Beijing sitting
in the bow and requesting Brussels not meddle with its "internal
affairs", such as human rights, Tibet and Taiwan. Instead, China
would rather that Europe just provide it with what it wants: money
and high-tech know-how to keep its economy growing at double-digit
growth rates.

Like it or not (and European Union bureaucrats in charge of drafting
Brussels' China policy statements and papers don't), a growing list
of bilateral problems, as opposed to nice-sounding political rhetoric
referring to each other as "strategic partners", has moved to the
very top of the EU-China bilateral agenda.

Europe's trade deficit with China is growing at the rate of 15
million euro (US$23.5 million) per hour. And Beijing's refusal to
enforce intellectual property rights or remove market access
obstacles for European businesses is what Brussels wants to alleviate
as soon as possible.

Business over principle, as usual

Beijing won't do this, of course. And add human rights, Tibet, Taiwan
and freedoms of the press, speech and religion in China and you'll
get an idea how much is on the EU Commission's (executive
branch's)plate in terms of implementing China policies on behalf of
27 member states. Unfortunately, the commission's mandate and, more
importantly, its authority are very limited. This leads, more often
than not, to toothless agreements embedded in uninspiring policy papers.

Worse, from the commission's perspective, member states' policies
towards China are anything but coherent and often change depending on
who wants what and when from Beijing.

For example, there would either be no support or strong opposition
from a country like France for the commission becoming more outspoken
on human rights in China should this coincide with an Airbus deal to
sell airplanes to China.

In fact, on his trip to China last November, French President Nicolas
Sarkozy "uninvited" his minister for human rights, Rama Yade, at
short notice to make sure that human rights in China would not stand
in the way of Airbus signing a deal to open a factory in China. They
didn't; France and China signed that and other deals worth 10 billion
euro (US$15 billion). This may have only been possible because Yade
didn't board the plane to Beijing with her boss.

Shutting up less, sometimes

To be fair, the EU's criticism on human rights in China in general
and Tibet in particular has recently turned from cautious and
wishy-washy to - by Brussels' standards - outspoken and straightforward.

On June 12, the EU Commission upgraded its previously overly tame
criticism on Beijing's Tibet policies and posted a strongly worded
statement on Tibet in reply to a number of petitions received by
non-governmental organizations, exile Tibetans and others urging the
commission to express a position on the human-rights situation in
Tibet that went beyond being "worried".

"The commission remains seriously concerned about the continuing
human-rights violations in Tibet, the allegations of torture and
abusive treatment of Tibetans in prison, raids in monasteries and
deportations of monks, unfair trials for the Tibetans involved in the
unrest and reinforced 'Patriotic Education Campaign' directed against
the Dalai Lama," the statement reads.
Being "worried and concerned" on the record, however, is not the same
as actually putting real political pressure on Beijing. Such an
option is not currently on the commission's China policy agenda.

Saying it in Chinese

But studying Chinese, as turns out, is on the EU's agenda and the
commission is planning to equip its bureaucrats and diplomats with
skills to speak about, and hear lectures on, Tibet, Taiwan and human
rights in Chinese. It set up an in-house Chinese language training
program which reportedly more than 100 officials have already signed on to.

However, the great majority of the 100 officials working on China in
the commission do not speak any Chinese. It should be said that a
working-level command of Chinese as opposed to ordering a beer in a
Beijing hotel bar is a matter of years.

Taking years is too long in an institution in which bureaucrats
rotate every three to four years. For example, a bureaucrat who has
worked on relations with Japan or China for four years might find
himself or herself working on Europe's relations with Greenland the
next four years - starting from zero as far as knowledge on the
country is concerned.

The commission's rotation system takes into account nationality,
gender and other criteria to make sure that not necessarily the most
qualified candidate out of the 25,000-member commission staff gets
the job in question.

Inevitably, this system produces bureaucrats who spend six months to
one year familiarizing themselves with the country or EU policy area
they are assigned to before making any sense of the job.

Show us the money

In recent years, the commission's China desk has repeatedly announced
it will invest money and resources into contemporary Chinese studies
in Europe. That sounded good, but Brussels has yet to provide
European universities and think-tanks with funds to produce work and
research on contemporary China relevant to academia or policymakers.

The commission does not finance a single contemporary China studies
program at a European university or think-tank and instead focuses on
handing out the occasional grant to research consortia in Europe and
China to work on narrowly defined China-related topics for limited
periods of time.

Ironically (as opposed to "humorously" for those who have done it),
filling in the commission's grant application forms can be as
time-consuming as the research itself. Consequently, many European
think-tanks and universities have turned to private sponsors.

Worse, due to its complex bureaucratic and administrative procedures
and rules, Brussels has become infamous for paying very late and
employing consultancies to administer grants on its behalf instead of
dealing with the recipients directly.

This is also a case of throwing European taxpayers' money down the
drain because the consultancies' input typically has very little do
with "consultancy" and more to do with taking care of basic logistics
and the pocketing of excessive overhead funding provided by the EU Commission.

The commission remains above all interested in seeing an "event". For
example, a public seminar or roundtable at the end of an EU-sponsored
project scores points for visibility as opposed to substance. More
often than not, there is no follow-up whatsoever. Ignoring the policy
advice and recommendations they've paid researchers for remains a
commission specialty.

The recently re-activated commission-sponsored European China
Academic Network is a positive initiative although its activities are
limited to organizing an occasional conference or workshop as opposed
to in-depth research on China.

Upgrading the partnership, maybe

As far as Brussels is concerned, the good news is the EU-China
Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). However, apart from
reading on the official record that the PCA will take EU-China ties
to a vaguely defined "next level", there is scant information
available on how exactly bilateral relations will change in quality
and quantity with the new PCA.

Today, Brussels and Beijing are cooperating actively in almost all
imaginable policy areas through the 25 so-called "sectoral
dialogues". Most Brussels policy observers agree that the PCA is
likely to be an update of the 1985 EU-China cooperation agreement as
opposed to the next "big bang" of EU-China relations.

Either way, the EU is keen to sign the agreement sooner rather than
later. After all, signing nice-sounding agreements with the rest of
the world is what it does best, at least judging by the number of
bilateral "action plans" and joint "policy papers" coming out of
Brussels on a very regular basis.

Beijing, on the other hand, is in less of a rush to sign the PCA, in
view of the EU's increasing "fuss about human rights and the trade
deficit", as a Chinese scholar put it to Asia Times Online.

If it turns out the commission and its counterparts in Beijing do not
have additional aces up their sleeves in regard to the upgrade of
Brussels-Beijing ties, signing the elusive PCA is at least another
photo opportunity for policymakers and bureaucrats to reinforce their
on-paper status as the best of friends.

Dr Axel Berkofsky is adjunct professor at the University of Milan and
advisor on Asian affairs at the Brussels-based European Policy Center
(EPC). The views expressed here are the author's alone.
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