By Julio Godoy
PARIS - European Union leaders speak repeatedly of tying increasing Chinese investment in Africa to respect for human rights. No such considerations come in the way of the EU's own dealings with China.
China is now Europe's most important economic partner. Some 200,000 jobs in Germany, the EU's leading economy, depend on exports to China, according to a July survey by the German Chamber of Trade and Industry. By next year, China will be Germany's main trading partner, with exports to the country forecast to increase 10% this year to more US$50 billion.
Chinese trade with France is heading for a 25% increase over last year after reaching $18.3 billion in the first half of this year.
Germany and France are, not coincidentally, increasingly tolerant of autocratic Chinese moves, as evident from the treatment that the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, was given this summer in Paris and Berlin.
Tibet has been seeking increased autonomy within China. Once an independent kingdom, it has been under Chinese occupation since 1950. The Dalai Lama, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner who leads the India-based Tibetan government in exile, is considered by Beijing to be a terrorist encouraging Tibet separatism.
The Dalai Lama spent almost two weeks in France this month. Unlike on earlier visits to Paris, he did not get to meet any significant political leader, let alone President Nicolas Sarkozy, having to make do with meeting a handful of second-rank French parliamentarians at a closed-door session on August 13. Sarkozy's wife, the singer and former model Carla Bruni, attended a religious ceremony led by the Dalai Lama in the south of the country.
Sarkozy, not known to skip a photo opportunity with international personalities, said he did not meet the Dalai Lama in order to "respect the spiritual character" of the Tibetan leader's visit to France.
The cool reception to the Dalai Lama is nevertheless seen by commentators as the direct consequence of very public Chinese pressure. Ahead of the Dalai Lama's visit to Paris, Chinese ambassador Kong Quan emphatically urged Sarkozy not to meet the Tibetan leader.
"If such a meeting took place, it would have serious consequences because it would be contrary to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs," the ambassador told reporters in Paris.
Sarkozy replied that it was not the Chinese government's duty "to rule my agenda or to fix my appointments". Yet when the time came, Sarkozy refused to meet the Dalai Lama. Instead, he went to Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games.
"It is a pity that the French government rolls out the red carpet when [Colombian politician] Ingrid Betancourt comes to Paris, but forces the Dalai Lama to come in through the back door," Lionel Luca, member of the French parliament said at a press conference.
"The [Chinese pressure] must be extremely strong," said Luca, a member of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement party. "Only the French fear of losing business orders from China explains our cowardice."
During his visit to Beijing, Sarkozy signed contracts for two French-made nuclear power plants worth $13 billion. Former French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who accompanied the president to Beijing, said Sarkozy's presence in China proved indispensable for the successful closure of the deal.
For all this, it seems, the Dalai Lama had to be treated badly, prompting many in France to protest against such a reception.
"It is not by acting as a bedside carpet that we are going to gain respect from the Chinese," Socialist Party (PS) member of parliament Jean-Louis Bianco said in an interview on French television. The Dalai Lama "is a Nobel Prize winner, and it is not a shame to meet him in public. There is no reason to conceal that we are meeting him."
The Chinese are not letting go. In a statement released in Beijing on August 13, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested against Sarkozy's as yet vague plans to meet the Dalai Lama in December. It urged the French government "to take into consideration Chinese concerns and to handle the sensitive [Tibetan] question with the due prudence".
This prudence is necessary to "guarantee the sane and stable development of French-Chinese relations", the Beijing government said.
The Chinese government has issued similar warnings to other European governments.
After German Chancellor Angela Merkel met the Dalai Lama in Berlin in September 2007, Chinese Minister for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi said Merkel had "offended" his people and "gambled away" Beijing's trust. The Chinese government canceled the annual human-rights dialogue between Germany and China that was scheduled for Beijing that December.
Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama also led to tensions within the German coalition government. German Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier accused Merkel of trying to "showcase" human rights. Merkel is president of the Christian Democratic Union party; Steinmeier is a leading member of the Social Democratic Party, a coalition partner.
When the Dalai Lama came to Berlin in May this year, just weeks after the Chinese government had violently repressed demonstrations by Tibetan monks in Tibet capital Lhasa, almost no German high-ranking officials were available for a meeting.
(Inter Press Service)