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EU/China: Summit Focuses On Rights, Cooperation

The fourth summit meeting between the European Union and China taking place in Brussels yesterday was partly overshadowed by China's human rights record. Nevertheless, both sides acknowledged the need for cooperation in other fields.

Brussels, 6 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of the European Union used the opportunity of yesterday's fourth EU-China summit to express disagreement over China's human rights record.

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt -- speaking also on behalf of the EU's rotating presidency -- told reporters after meeting Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji that he had expressed the EU's grave concerns about China's human rights record. He referred to a recent report by the rights group Amnesty International that was critical of China:

"And I have also, on behalf of the European Union, expressed concern. Yesterday, Amnesty International published a report, the concerns of which I took up, emphasizing three aspects. The first is about the [Chinese drastic anti-corruption] campaign, 'Strike Hard.' The EU recognizes the need to fight corruption, but respect for human rights, especially fundamental human rights, must not be lost sight of. The second deals with [China's] treatment of minorities -- especially religious minorities -- among others, [those] in Tibet. And thirdly, the treatment of North Korean fugitives."

A pre-summit EU background document listed the EU's concerns as ranging from the Chinese authorities' widespread disregard for basic human rights to the use of torture and arbitrary detention to fight crime.

Verhofstadt said he is pleased that the EU's human rights concerns found mention in the joint communique.

Zhu, for his part, echoed the official line taken by Chinese officials in recent years. He said the rights situation in China -- although not ideal -- is "at its best" and continues to improve "with each passing day."

"Of course, I'm not saying that the human rights situation in China is perfect. That is impossible. In such a large country like China, human rights violations occur every day. But the point is that Chinese laws, government, and agencies at all levels attach great importance to human rights protection."

Zhu drew attention to the fact that China has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and was examining a similar covenant on civil and political rights.

Both Amnesty International and the EU have expressed concern over China's apparent suspension of an article in the economic and social rights charter that affirms citizens' rights to form and join trade unions as they please.

In spite of disagreements over human rights, both sides seemed content with yesterday's meeting. Officials asserted that significant progress was made in a number of fields of mutual interest.

China is close to succeeding in its bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the WTO's upcoming meeting in Qatar in November. Although Beijing has concluded the necessary deals with both the United States and the EU, some final details still need to be worked out. When the EU's Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy yesterday offered China his help in talking to the United States, Zhu said he had gratefully accepted.

The EU, for its part, hopes that China joining the WTO will push Beijing toward liberalizing its foreign trade regime and help reduce the EU's $39 billion trade deficit with China.

The EU also needs to weigh its commitment to human rights against the need to secure China's cooperation in fighting human trafficking. An estimated half a million illegal immigrants enter the EU each year, with EU analysts predicting a rapid increase in China's share.

The EU also appeared pleased yesterday to have secured China's commitment to continue working within the Kyoto process that places limits on the amount of greenhouse gases that countries can emit into the atmosphere.

And finally, the EU appears to have enrolled China's support in bolstering the EU's nascent "great power" status in the world. Thus, Verhofstadt was able to announce the inclusion of issues such as the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as disarmament in future EU-China talks.