Ties Dams says Europeans have long seen China through the lens of the missionary and the merchant, who focus on either China’s human rights records or huge market. But now, the scaremonger is taking over the narrative of China
Europe finally woke up to China’s rise last year. President Xi Jinping’s scrapping of term limits turned into a global news event that put a recognisable face on Chinese power to European audiences. The trade war that US President Donald Trump so boisterously declared on China made clear to the European political elite, as well as the general public, that Europe too must engage with the most important power relationship of the century. Xi even launched a charm offensive in Europe, trying to win over hearts, minds and investment capital.
Xi couldn’t have picked a better time to improve China’s brand abroad. Caught between the Trump White House and the Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, Europe is looking for a great power it can rely on. Xi’s speech at the World Economic Forum in 2017 positioned him as exactly that: a reliable, rational and durable partner in business and governance – the anti-Trump. Back in 2014, Xi had invoked a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte (“China is a sleeping lion. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world”) when he told an audience including then French president Francois Hollande: “Today, the lion has woken up. But it is peaceful, pleasant and civilised.”
It is certainly in China’s interests to build a positive image in Europe. The EU is China’s biggest trading partner and a crucial part of its Belt and Road Initiative. The European Union’s relatively open economy has invited a lot of Chinese investment, enabling China to strengthen its foothold in the global infrastructure and hi-tech markets. As Xi claims to champion multilateralism and globalism, Europe is an important friend to keep.
Yet, as more Europeans wake up to the reality of a roaring China, fewer seem to believe that its power is as benign as Xi would like it to be seen.
Fear of China is back in vogue. Fear of China isn’t new, of course. Since as early as the 17th and 18th centuries, when the trading ships of the Dutch East India Company arrived in Taiwan and Guangzhou, Sinophobia has been promulgated in Europe.
Missionaries and merchants rationalised the cruel colonial tactics of European powers by picturing China as either a backward culture in need of salvation or a source of cheap resources up for grabs. These caricatures of China have long dominated European foreign policies. The missionary, in today’s political terms, argues that Western countries and international organisations should press China to improve its human rights records. The merchant argues that they shouldn’t bother: China offers a huge market and politics shouldn’t get in the way of trade.
The good news is that the European image of China is changing rapidly. It is quickly getting over its arrogance and naivety. The bad news? The merchant and the missionary may be on their way out, but the scaremonger seems to be next in line.
Trump’s China-bashing rhetoric and protectionism might be making inroads into Europe soon. French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a “true European army” to counter China’s rise. William Hague, former foreign secretary of Britain, says the West has woken up to China’s power, and must now work out how to contain it. Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel for years promoted a pragmatic European approach to China, her impending departure from politics and the Chinese competition facing Germany’s hi-tech sector mean that her successor might well take a more critical stance towards China. Germany and France have already pushed for stronger screenings for Chinese investments in Europe.
European news coverage of China reflects how Europe is learning to take Chinese power seriously and but is also increasingly afraid of it. When the existence of re-education camps in Xinjiang was first picked up by the European press, the missionary was the first to put his spin on it: commentators expressed outrage at the violation of human rights and called for the Chinese government to change its ways. Quickly, however, the debate turned to the politics of hi-tech surveillance and control used in Xinjiang and China at large. Among the diplomats and policymakers in Europe I speak to, it is becoming a commonplace to recognise China as the global innovator in these fields. At the same time, many worry deeply about Chinese hi-tech influence abroad.
The popular media in France, Germany, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands are discussing on a daily basis now whether China’s investments in Europe will undermine European solidarity. China’s cooperation with Eastern European countries through the 16+1 group – outside the EU’s grasp – is being linked to the growing prominence of anti-EU politicians in those countries. This all adds up to a growing fear of China.
Sinophobia isn’t new, but it’s changing and hurting China’s soft-power strategy.
In short, the good news is that there is a growing awareness in Europe that it cannot view China through the lenses of the merchant and the missionary any more. China is a mature great power that is rapidly gaining influence in European politics and economics. Europe is, in its own way, growing up and facing the reality of 21st-century great power politics.
The bad news is that, if the rising tide of Sinophobia leads to increased hostility across the Eurasian continent, both Europe and China will land in serious trouble. Xi’s soft-power strategy won’t do the trick. Europe should learn how to have a mature great power relationship with China and stand up for its own values and interests. And China would be wise to take concerns about its undermining influence on European cohesion seriously.