The EU and China: Two competing perspectives on the future of human rights


23 | 11 | 2021


Implications of the Xinjiang Conflict on European Union-People’s Republic of China bilateral relations

En la imagen

Mao's portrait, EU and China flags at the Tiananmen Square

This essay aims to carry out a comparative study between the divergent perspectives of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the European Union (EU) towards how to defend, maintain and promote human rights recognized by current international legal regimes, in order to thus, to be able to analyze how this affects, and will continue to affect, their current bilateral relations (understanding that the incompatibility of perspectives in this area leads to the diplomatic conflict), specifically focusing on issues related to the alleged violation of human rights by the administration of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) towards the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang Autonomous Community.

Sino-European relations and the different approach towards human rights

Sino-European relations (which started from the recognition of the legitimacy of the PRC as a member state of the United Nations in 1975) are of great geostrategic relevance for both parties, since the PRC and the EU are two of the three major trade and economic powers in the world (the United States being the third) and the two most important at the Eurasian level, mainly due to its great demographic weight. Furthermore, the EU is the largest trading partner of China, which in turn is the second largest trading partner of the EU1. So there is a strong economic interdependence between both parties that calls for mutual cooperation. That is why the PRC and the EU have committed to a comprehensive strategic partnership, expressed above all in the Strategic Agenda for EU-China Cooperation 20202.

However, said cooperation, despite being essential, is not fully friendly (even it could be said that it is based on mutual distrust) since the EU and the PRC have been involved in multiple diplomatic conflicts related to different economic, political and social topics. For example, among them would be the importation of textiles3, the weapons embargo by the EU after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre4, reports of cyber attacks5, the EU's purchase of medical equipment from the PRC that was defective during the COVID-19 pandemic6… But of all the conflicts that concern Sino-European relations, it is worth focusing on the respect for human rights, since it is one of the most controversial topics in the bilateral relations between both international agents, as their perspectives differ on this matter, which leads to a conflict that complicates such cooperation at an ethical and geopolitical level. This is defined as a conflict based on definitions such as that of Rahim who defined it as “An interactive process manifested in incompatibility, disagreement, or dissonance within or between social entities”7 or Wright “Inconsistencies in the motions, sentiments, purposes or claims of entities, and sometimes to the process of resolving these inconsistencies”8. Summarizing it, the incompatibility of objectives at the same time.

On the one hand, the EU declares itself to be a firm defender of human rights and the policies for the promotion and protection of these have two main aspects. The first would be the protection of the fundamental rights of EU citizens and the other would be to promote (which is not the same as imposing, since the EU strategy is based on soft power, that is, through persuasion) these rights around the world9. The functioning of the EU in this area is based on the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union ratified by its members in 2000 (as its ratification is mandatory to be able to enjoy the membership of the Union), whose compiled rights emanate directly from the conventions and declarations drawn up by the United Nations such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Furthermore, this became legally binding in 2009 and is compatible with the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms10. In turn, most of the member states of the European Union are ratifiers of the Treaty of Rome, thus recognizing the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). As specified above, one of the objectives of the EU's bilateral and multilateral relations is to promote fundamental rights through persuasion. This is perceptible, for example, in the EU Strategy on China published on June 22, 2016, which specifies that: “The promotion of human rights will continue to be a core part of the EU's engagement with China, with the well-being of citizens and respect for international obligations at the center of its approach. The EU will hold China to account for its human rights record”11.

On the other hand, the PRC is fighting to change the current public international law, and although this new approach that it wants to give it touches all areas of it, it places special emphasis on the principles of freedom, human rights and democracy. The PRC calls for these changes because, according to its point of view, the states with the greatest involvement in the balance of powers in the international field are those that create and shape international institutions. They do so with the implication of their national interests and most of these institutions were created after the end of World War II or during the Cold War, at which time China and other Indo-Pacific Asian countries were not strong enough as to intervene in its modulation correctly. That is why the PRC brought together 50 states in 2017 at the China's first South-South Human Rights Forum in Beijing, in which Xi Jinping stressed that human rights have both ‘universality’ and ‘particularity’, which means that although human rights are universal must also take into account that “human rights must and can only be promoted in light of specific national conditions”12. Basically, what Beijing is proposing is that states should have sufficient authority to prioritize other needs over human rights, for example especially with regard to maintaining public order. On the other hand, the PRC is also a firm defender of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. This is manifested in the opposition of various Chinese officials and academics towards, for example, the military activities of the United States in Middle Eastern states such as Libya or Iraq (representing hard power) or the World Uyghur Congress meeting held in Japan (soft power)13.

So from here it can be seen that the EU for its part is a supra-governmental institution that maintains great respect for current public international law and international institutions, while China considers that these were shaped by the “western” states with implication of their national interests and that to a large extent continue to respond to them by not adapting correctly to the Asian context by forgetting their dual universal and particular nature. Furthermore, the second major difference would be that while the EU tries to make the promotion and safeguarding of human rights a crucial part of its bilateral and multilateral actions, China, on the contrary, is a defender of the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states (not even through soft power). These two different views can lead to diplomatic conflict within an atmosphere of cooperation, and this has happened, for example, with the abuse of human rights towards the Uyghur population and other minority nationalities (such as the Hui) in the autonomous community of Xinjiang.

The Chinese Communist Party's management of the Xinjiang conflict

The Xinjiang conflict is an ethnic conflict that started from the official annexation of the East Turkestan area to the PRC in 194814 (after the Civil War in China) whose nature lies in the nationalist sentiment of the Uygur Turkic ethnic group15. At the time of the beginning of the conflict, which itself has much deeper historical roots, the Uyghur ethnic group represented more than 75% of the population and today it has decreased to 45% due to the increase of Han citizens16 in East Turkestan, nowadays Xinjiang. Such nationalist sentiment has sometimes led to attempts by secessionist movements such as the East Turkestan Independence Movement, the Turkestan Islamic Party or the East Turkestan Liberation Organization. Although not all Uyghurs aspire to future independence, that is why the PCC has considered the Uyghur identity as belonging to what is known as the “Three Forces of Evil”, a terminology used by the PCC since the early XXI century to refer to separatism extremism and terrorism based on the growing fight against terrorism promoted in the international arena after the 9/11 attacks17.

However, of these three groups, it would be easy to think that China only linked the Uyghur nationalist movements with separatism, but also with terrorism and therefore with extremism. The reason for this is that because the Uyghur ethnic group has always been linked to the Muslim religion (especially the Sunni Hafani school), anti-China movements have received support from terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or the Union of Islamic Jihad18. For this reason, China has always responded in an authoritarian way to movements and protests of Uyghur cultural demands, except in the 1980s, in which a certain permissiveness was tolerated19. Today there is a great Uyghur diaspora in Europe, America and other parts of Asia, which has allowed a greater diffusion that has made known the authoritarian policies of China in the Xinjiang region20. This diffusion has been increased in recent years through social networks.

Although nowadays the PCC has been carrying out actions that violate public international law with the intention of resolving the conflict, it is since the Qing dynasty that friction exists. However, recent actions follow a strategy based on three specific points: Repression, Assimilation and Development21. As for the repression, according to Beijing, the openness enjoyed by the Uyghurs in the 1980s did not have the desired effects since the interconnectivity they enjoyed during this time with the Islamic world led to an increase in nationalist sentiment. That is why after the Tianmen attacks, it was used to promote Chinese nationalism and within the "Hit Hard" campaigns against the "three forces of evil" the Uyghurs were included. The main problem was found in the fact that the PLA did not distinguish between the political and identity sensibilities of the Uyghurs, which caused any act of cultural manifestation to derive the abuse of fundamental rights through detention and even the death penalty. For 2016 it is estimated that the arrests led to more than a thousand people and that there were approximately 200 executions.

The PRC justifies the repression because of the threat that these nationalisms pose to the territorial integrity of the state, although everything seems to indicate that the threat is sometimes voluntarily exaggerated. According to a document published by the Information Office of the PRC State Council under the title ‘East Turkestan terrorist forces cannot escape with impunity’22, the Uighurs were responsible for more than 200 attacks that had killed 162 people and injured 44023. According to Millward, a careful analysis of the aforementioned report leads to the conclusion that, in general terms, it contains “imprecise, questionable or contradictory”24 information. On the other hand, the Assimilation strategy consists of gradually eroding the presence of Uyghurs in Xinjang so that the Han end up being the majority in the region.

That is why Assimilation policies have been given three approaches: language, tourism/immigration and religion. Regarding the language, what is intended is both to carry out educational policies to promote Mandarin and the implicit or explicit persecution and corral of Uyghur25. For this, what is done is to force schools and universities to teach the subjects in Mandarin. In addition, the Uighur-language naming places are replaced by Mandarin names26. As for religion, for the Uyghurs it is more a symbol of ethnic difference rather than a dogma of life. However, the PRC makes few distinctions and also considers religious practices as linked to terrorism or separatism. Among some actions taken by the PLA was the arrest of some young participants in the mäshräp (a harmless traditional practice) in 199727. This has been criticized by Human Rights Watch by directly attacking freedom of worship and the rights of association and freedom of expression28. Finally, the government of the PRC also places a strong emphasis on the economic development of the region, considering that prosperity will dilute the Uygur resistance and make the population more to Beijing. For this reason, on the one hand, the exploitation of regional raw materials has been intensified29 and, on the other, cross-border commercial relations with Central Asia have been increased (through which the New Silk Road would pass, which would make the region an important space economically)30.

However, of all the repressive measures by the PRC towards the Uygur population, apart from crimes against humanity, the one that has generated the most controversy in the international field would be the re-education camps in which China is holding more prisoners of a million Uyghurs (and other ethnic minorities) in which they are forced to perform forced labor with the intention of ethnic cleansing of the population.

EU response to the conflict and its impact on Sino-European relations

The first recent EU response to the human rights abuses in Xinjang stemmed from its individual members. The most obvious example would be the position taken by the France junior trade minister Franck Miester in December 2020 who alleged that France would oppose the ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment due to abuses by the PRC towards the Uyghur population in the respective to forced labor. Finally, France allowed the ratification of the agreement on the condition (stipulated in the agreement itself) that the PRC would ratify the ILO Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labor of 195731. In the agreement, China commits itself to this.

Prior to this, in the European Parliament Resolution on the situation of Uighurs in China of 2019, the European Parliament expresses in Article 1 “its deepest concern about the intensification of the repressive regime faced by Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. Muslims and calls on the authorities to respect their fundamental freedoms, as recommended in credible reports; strongly condemns the internment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and Kazakhs in «re-education camps» «while urging the PRC» to immediately end arbitrary detentions without charge, trial or conviction for a criminal offense of members of the Uighur and Kazakh minorities as well as to close all camps and detention centers and release the detainees immediately and unconditionally32. That is why in Article 8 it also encourages the Commission, the Council and the Member States “to take all necessary measures to convince the Chinese Government to close the camps, put an end to all human rights violations in Xinjiang and respect the linguistic, cultural, religious and other fundamental freedoms of the Uighurs; urges the Vice-President of the Commission/High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (VP/HR), the EEAS and the Member States to monitor more intensively the worrying evolution of human rights in Xinjiang”33. So the French reaction of 2020 can be considered as a response to the obedience of this resolution.

The most intense measure taken by the EU consisted of the use of a new mechanism adopted in December 2020 and inspired by the US Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 (and previously only used during the diplomatic conflict with Russia), through which the supra-governmental institution is capable of applying restrictive measures and penalties against persons, entities or bodies responsible for serious violations or abuses of human rights committed anywhere in the world by declaring persona non-grata or freezing their assets on the European ground (so far the European sanctions have only been committed against states)34.

The measure has been adopted only against four members of the Chinese government, considered responsible for the repression against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. These individuals are: Zhu Hailun (former secretary of the Chinese Affairs Committee Politicians and Legal Officers of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), Wang Junzheng (secretary or of the Party of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and Deputy Secretary of the Party Committee of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), Wang Mingshan (member of the Party Standing Committee in Xinjiang) and Chen Mingguo (director of the Public Security Bureau of Xinjiang)35.

In response, the Chinese foreign ministry also sanctioned 10 EU citizens and four entities36. In turn, Wang Yi declared that the EU sanctions against China represent a great diplomatic error based on error and misinformation that would have a negative effect on the bilateral relations of both international agents, also calling for the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of the states37. To this Josep Borrell replied that “Instead of changing its policies and addressing our legitimate concerns, China has once again turned a blind eye. It will not change the EU's determination to uphold human rights and to respond to serious violations and abuses, regardless of where they are committed”38.

The Trade Agreement between China and the EU is still pending ratification, however neither of the two blocs has any pretense of not ratifying it in response to this conflict, and this is surely due to the fact that, as is generally indicated in the annual summits between China and In the EU, the bilateral relationship between the two is based on win-win, so changing positions and neglecting the ratification of the agreement would be a retaliation that would harm both. But by ratifying this agreement at least the EU managed to force China to ratify the agreement to illegitimate forced labor. It remains to be seen whether the PRC will honor that part of the agreement or be forgotten.

However, although the violation of human rights and Xinjang has minimal consequences for the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, it may have them for future projects or future companies that depend on Sino-European relations. In particular, one of the clearest cases is going to be the Chinese initiative of the new silk road. The reason for this is that the EU member states have so far been divided on how to act on this project39, but the issue of the Xinjang conflict could position them all against it. This is because, for geographical reasons, the route can only enter and leave China through the autonomous community of Xinjang (both its route through Kaschmir and the one that passes through Central Asia). Obviously, the conflict is highly polarized due to repression and commercial security may be affected by it. The EU is able to put conditions on China on the Xinjang issue, stating that they will not make decisions about the new silk road until the territory is safe, fulfilling everything related to the fundamental rights of its citizens and Europeans. As stated in Art 5 of the European Parliament resolution on the situation of the Uyghurs in China the EU “Notes with concern that the critical importance of ‘long-term stability’ in Xinjiang to the success of the BRI has led to the intensification of long-standing control strategies bolstered by a variety of technological innovations and a rapid increase in spending on domestic security, and the use of counter-terrorism measures to criminalise dissent and dissident individuals by applying a broad definition of ‘terrorism”40.


In conclusion, it could be said that the EU and China have two totally different perspectives on the future approach towards the defense and promotion of human rights. While the EU considers that these are universal, China considers that they also have a certain particularity (with states that, for example, put public order before rights); while China firmly defends the principle of non-intervention while that the EU conditions its bilateral relations on fundamental rights. The EU and the PRC, being two of the economies with the greatest impact on the terrestrial bloc, are obliged to maintain a mutually beneficial cooperative relationship, but this issue is one of many that can lead to diplomatic conflict and complicate such cooperation. This is perfectly shown in the Xinjang conflict, where the EU conditions its agreements with China on the fulfillment of fundamental rights towards the Uyghurs and has even been able to impose sanctions, while the PRC considers that the EU should not meddle in internal affairs of China since the actions taken have the sole intention of safeguarding territorial unity and public order. At the moment, the Uyghur conflict does not seem to affect the ratification of the trade agreement too much, but it may affect future projects such as the coveted Silk Road promoted by the PRC.


[1] Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council, EU-China – A strategic perspective, European Commission, Strasbourg, 12.3.2019 JOIN (2019) 5 final, p. 2

[3] Louise Curran, 'EU Trade Defence Actions against China and Their Impacts: The Cases of Textiles and Footwear', (2009), 43, Journal of World Trade, Issue 6, pp. 1281-1297

[6] China’s defective Coronavirus equipment. (2020, 29 junio). The Parliament Magazine.

[7] Rahim, M. Afzalur, Toward a theory of managing organizational conflict, Center for Advanced Studies in Management, The International Journal of Conflict Management 2002, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 207

[8] Wright, Q. (1951). The Nature of Conflict. The Western Political Quarterly, 4(2), 193-209. doi:10.2307/443101

[9] European Union. (2019, 26 junio). Human rights and democracy. Unión Europea.

[10] EUR-LEX. (2020). Human rights-EUR-Lex. European Union Law.

[11]Joint communication to the European Parliament and the Council, Elements for a new EU strategy on China, European Commission, Brussels, 22.6.2016 JOIN(2016) 30 final

[12] Gao, C. (2017, 12 diciembre). China Promotes Human Rights ‘With Chinese Characteristics’. The Diplomat.

[13] International Business Times. (2012, 18 mayo). World Uyghur Congress In Tokyo Draws Condemnation From China. World Uyghur Congress.

[14] Some historians may argue about the moment in which conflict starts. In this case 1948 has the chosen year to asses as the “starting point” just because was at that time that the region of East Turkestan fell under the control of the communists.

[15] de Pedro, Nicolas; El conflicto de Xinjiang: La minoría uigur y la política de Pekín, OPEX, Fundación Alternativas, UNISCI Discussion Papers, No 16 (Enero / January 2008), ISSN 1696-2206 p. 112

[16] Ibidem p. 113

[17] Dwyer, Arienne (2005): The Xinjiang Conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language Policy and Political Discourse, Policy Studies, no 15, Washington, The East-West Center, p. 10.

[18] Potter, Philip B. K. (Winter 2013). "Terrorism in China: Growing Threats with Global Implications" (PDF). Strategic Studies Quarterly. p. 71–74. 12 June 2018.

[19] de Pedro, Nicolas; El conflicto de Xinjiang: La minoría uigur y la política de Pekín, OPEX, Fundación Alternativas, UNISCI Discussion Papers, No 16 (Enero / January 2008), ISSN 1696-2206 p. 120

[20] Ibidem p. 132

[21] Ibidem p. 124

[23] de Pedro, Nicolas; El conflicto de Xinjiang: La minoría uigur y la política de Pekín, OPEX, Fundación Alternativas, UNISCI Discussion Papers, No 16 (Enero / January 2008), ISSN 1696-2206 p. 125

[24] Millward, James: (2004): Violent separatism in Xinjiang: A critical assesment, East-West center, Washington  p.2.

[25] Esteban Rodríguez, Mario (2007): China después de Tian’anmen. Nacionalismo y cambio político, Barcelona, Edicions Bellaterra, ISBN: 978-84-7290-357-9

[26] Schluessel, Eric T. (2007): ''Bilingual' education and discontent in Xinjiang”, op.cit., p. 256.

[27] de Pedro, Nicolas; El conflicto de Xinjiang: La minoría uigur y la política de Pekín, OPEX, Fundación Alternativas, UNISCI Discussion Papers, No 16 (Enero / January 2008), ISSN 1696-2206 p. 127

[28] Human Rights Watch. (2020, 22 abril). Devastating Blows.

[29] Khamraev, Hamide (2003): “La Géopolitique du pétrole” en Besson, Fréderique-Jeanne y Aubin, Françoise: Les Ouïgours au vingtiéme siécle, Cemoti, no 25, disponible en

[30] de Pedro, Nicolas; El conflicto de Xinjiang: La minoría uigur y la política de Pekín, OPEX, Fundación Alternativas, UNISCI Discussion Papers, No 16 (Enero / January 2008), ISSN 1696-2206 p. 128

[31] Vela, J. H. (2021, 12 enero). EU will not ask China to sign forced labor ban before ratifying investment deal, says French minister. POLITICO.

[33] Ibidem

[34] Martínez, E. C. (2021, 28 enero). La “Ley Magnitsky” de la UE: un nuevo régimen de sanciones de derechos humanos. Instituto de Derecho Público.

[39] Hegedüs, D. (2020, 14 enero). A Grand Bargain Can Bridge Any EU Divide on China. The German Marshall Fund of the United States.