The EU could throw out its landmark trade deal with China over concerns about Beijing’s human rights record

Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping.

  • A leading member of the European Parliament has raised significant concerns about the EU’s landmark investment deal with China over its alleged human rights abuses and fears that it could harm relations with the new Biden administration.
  • The EU-China investment deal aims to liberalize trade between Beijing and Brussels and was struck in the last days of December after last-minute concessions from Chinese premier Xi Jinping.
  • But there is mounting concern in the European Parliament, which still needs to approve the deal, about the deal given China’s human rights record on issues including alleged forced labor camps and a crackdown in Hong Kong which began last year.
  • “To lay such a Christmas present under Xi Jinping’s Christmas tree after the year that we’ve had with China, that is quite a stretch,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of the European Parliament’s China delegation, in an interview with Insider this week.
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A leading member of the European Parliament has raised significant concerns about the EU’s landmark investment deal with China over its alleged human rights abuses and fears that it could harm relations with the new Biden administration.

The EU-China investment deal aims to liberalize trade between Beijing and Brussels and was struck in the last days of December after last-minute concessions from Chinese premier Xi Jinping.

But there is mounting concern in the European Parliament, which still needs to approve the deal, about it given China’s human rights record, alleged forced labor camps and a crackdown in Hong Kong, which began last year.

“To lay such a Christmas present under Xi Jinping’s Christmas tree after the year that we’ve had with China, that is quite a stretch,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of the European Parliament’s China delegation, in an interview with Insider this week.

The full text of the so-called Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) is still to be published, but there is already mounting criticism about the content of the deal.

Bütikofer said the European Parliament’s demands for the deal to contain a clause binding China to international agreements on modern slavery given were ignored. Instead, the deal only contains a non-binding commitment by China “to make continues and sustained efforts” to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Conventions on forced labour.

“We demanded practical steps and guarantees and the deal is just full of hot air,” Bütikofer said.

Those concerns were echoed in a letter sent by a group of MEPs to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen this week, which was reported by The Diplomat magazine.

The appeal, which dozens of civil rights groups also signed, said the CAI “sends a signal that the European Union will push for closer cooperation” with China “regardless of the scale and severity of human rights abuses carried out by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Those concerns focus particularly on the Xianjing region of in northwest China, where the UN says the government has detained over one million Uighur Muslims, with some of them used for the purposes of forced labor. China rejects the allegations.

Another concern is about the impact the deal could have on transatlantic relations. The deal was agreed just weeks before President-elect Joe Biden is due to be inaugurated, leading critics of the deal to suggest it was wrapped up just before the new administration – which has pledged to take a tough line on China – had time to object.

Biden’s national security adviser has already expressed concern about the trade agreement. It remains to be seen just how much pressure Washington will seek to exert on Brussels over the deal.

“Doing this deal just a few days before President-elect Biden comes into office is very unfortunate,” Bütikofer said.

“It seems as if the European Union saw more need to demonstrate to the United States that we can be strategically autonomous than we see a need to signal to Beijing that we want to cooperate more actively and more coherently with the United States. I think that’s a highly questionable priority,” he said.

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