It was the trip that Charles Michel had been desperate to land. Now it’s fast becoming a nightmare.
With terrible timing, the president of the European Council is due to fly out to China Tuesday for talks with Xi Jinping, in an effort to strengthen ties between Brussels and Beijing.
But rolling protests demanding an end to Xi’s zero-COVID lockdown policy have escalated into the biggest threat to Chinese state power for more than 30 years, with some demonstrators even calling for the Communist leader to resign.
As police arrest and beat protesters — and even journalists covering the events — amid fears that the authoritarian crackdown will become more brutal, Michel is facing growing pressure to rethink his mission.
If he doesn’t cancel the trip entirely, he must deliver a rebuke to Xi and other Chinese representatives when they meet on Thursday, according to officials, politicians and EU diplomats, who spoke to POLITICO.
“He should use the occasion to raise our concerns regarding several issues,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China. “If there is a crackdown of the recent protest movement, the EU is willing to raise that in international institutions and to consider new sanctions.”
“He’s probably having second thoughts,” one EU official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Being the first Western leader going among these protests, he will be forced to say something, so what is he going to say? If they could turn down the clock, they would probably cancel.”
One EU diplomat said: “Michel should stand firm on EU values and tell China they need to protect peaceful protests.” Another European diplomat added that Michel must not go soft on Beijing.
So far, there are no plans for Michel to raise the protests in his meeting with Xi on Thursday, according to EU officials briefed on the matter. Michel is likely to make broad-brush references to concerns over human rights and to offer European help with fighting the pandemic, despite China’s refusal to import Western vaccines.
Advisers to Michel, who chairs meetings of the 27 EU heads of government, had always expected the talks with Xi to be potentially difficult. Longstanding points of conflict over Beijing’s alliance with Russia, aggression toward Taiwan and abuses of minorities within China have become more acute in recent months.
His task was already complicated by the fact that EU governments cannot agree on the best approach toward China. Some hawkish nations want to decouple trade with Beijing while leaders including Olaf Scholz of Germany favor engagement.
The protests, which have escalated dramatically in recent days, may force Europeans to make a choice. Whatever happens, Michel will be remembered as the first Western leader to pay China a visit after the biggest show of public disapproval in Beijing’s leaders since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
The demonstrations were prompted by a deadly fire that officials say killed 10 in an area in Xinjiang under lockdown. University students held up white paper to protest at state control and police clashed with locals and foreign journalists alike.
Unprecedentedly, protesters are even calling for Xi to step down, with some shouting “we don’t want an emperor” and others demanding that the internet censorship apparatus be dismantled. This was a shock to many China watchers, since Xi had enjoyed unchallenged power when he assumed a norm-breaking third term in office in October.
The EU’s foreign policy spokesperson would only say: “We are following closely the widespread protests in many Chinese cities, against the country’s strict zero-COVID policy.”
European policymakers are treading a tightrope on how far to go to support the protesters. German Finance Minister Christian Lindner, a long-time critic of the Communist Party, retweeted his Free Democratic Party foreign policy spokesman, who posted: “The population no longer wants to be locked up. It takes insane courage to oppose the [Communist Party] like this.”
Next 48 hours
Much will depend on the next 48 hours to assess the scale and continuity of the protests — and crucially whether the police will escalate their response. European diplomats on the ground are currently on round-the-clock alert monitoring the situation, especially in Beijing and Shanghai.
“Any words by Michel would be for EU consumption only, but would annoy the Communist Party leaders and they would see them as interference in domestic politics,” said Ricardo Borges de Castro, associate director at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank. “If protests do get worse and there is a violent crackdown by Chinese authorities by December 1, the more difficult it will be for President Michel to come out politically unscathed.”
Michel’s solo mission — without European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — has raised eyebrows in Brussels as a sign of the widening rift between the two top officials.
“The whole trip has to be seen in the light of the rivalry between von der Leyen and Michel,” according to the EU official quoted above. The Chinese will want to know about the details of trade policy and whether the EU will follow U.S. export controls on microchips. “Those are the questions Xi will ask and Charles can’t answer them — only Ursula can. It’s this eternal rivalry that dominates everything,” the official said.
“Maybe Xi will cancel. That would be the most elegant way out for Michel.”
Barbara Moens contributed reporting.