Josep Borrell is in China this week for the first visit by a President of the (European)Parliament for 13 years. In going he will fulfil one of the priorities of his term of office and will see first-hand what he calls the "huge yet paradoxical changes in China". Between 8-14 July he is scheduled to meet senior government officials, members of China's Parliament - the National People's Congress, business leaders and NGOs. The visit will take him to Beijing, Shanghai and the Tibetan capital Lhasa.
The visit to Lhasa (where he will see EU-supported development work) comes just weeks after he met the Dalai Lama in Brussels. As President Borrell said; "The European Parliament has always taken a keen interest in Tibet and I wish to see for myself the reality on the ground". More generally, he said he wanted "to talk to the Chinese leaders about the opportunities that arise from a strengthened relationship with the EU".
EP Resolutions on China - some friendly, some not
Relations with China have kept Parliament busy over the years with numerous resolutions being adopted, some on improving cooperation on issues such as visas, the WTO, technology and maritime transport. However, there have also been more controversial ones on Taiwan, Tibet, freedom of religion and the EU's arms embargo against China, the lifting of which Parliament has made conditional on human rights improvements. The EP has urged the Chinese government to respond to international calls for improvement in the human rights situation and to guarantee democracy and freedom of expression.
Just prior to leaving for Beijing President Borrell was asked by a Chinese journalist why the Parliament seems to adopt resolutions "against" China. He replied that "respect of human rights is a central value for Europeans and parliamentarians raise issues relating to human rights in all parts of the world, not just China. Last month we adopted a strong resolution insisting on the closure of Guantanamo."
He added that "personally I do not believe that the violation of civil rights does anything to promote either stability or a harmonious society".
Brussels, Beijing and bras
Following China's economic reform of the 1980's it is now a global economic power and the EU's second biggest trading partner after the US. For China, the EU is its biggest trading partner.
However, there have been recent tensions over the amount of cheap shoes and other textiles that have come into the EU from China after import restrictions were lifted - the "bra wars" made headlines in 2005. Asked about this, President Borrell replied that "the challenges faced by a globalising China are also faced by a globalising Europe. Job insecurity, the rise of populism and ethnic and religious nationalism, the challenge of increased migration into the EU - these are Europe's problems".
Alluding to certain tensions, he said that "it is perhaps not surprising peoples' fears and insecurities are projected onto external powers like China." He said it was important that national parliaments explain problems and advocate solutions.
Later this year, the European Parliament's Delegation to China will hold its annual meeting with members of the National People's Congress, also in Beijing. In September Parliament will vote on a report drafted by Bas Belder MEP on relations between the EU and China.
Even though this is Josep Borrell's second visit to China, people there may already know his face. Earlier this year he appeared on television to wish them a happy new year on behalf of the Parliament as they celebrated the start of the "Year of the Dog". According to Chinese tradition babies born this year will grow up to be loyal and honest people.