Beijing's hopes of using Europe as a counterweight to the United States have faltered as country after country confronts China over trade, Hong Kong, human rights and other issues.
After rebuking a senior Czech lawmaker for visiting Taiwan this month, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, received an obscenity-laced public letter that punctuated just how far China's standing in Europe has fallen.
"You should be ashamed," another lawmaker, Pavel Novotny, an outspoken district mayor in Prague, wrote, calling the Chinese "impudent, thoughtless, uncouth clowns" and demanding an apology.
The outburst was not an isolated one.
In country after country, China is facing rising anger over its policies and its behaviour — from trade to human rights — a major setback on a continent that Beijing has viewed as a more pragmatic, and thus more willing, partner to provide ballast against sharply deteriorating relations with the United States.
For China's leader, Xi Jinping, a lasting shift in European views poses an enormous challenge. In the short term, it threatens to undermine the country's post-pandemic economic recovery by stifling new investments as the United States restricts them, especially in high tech. In the longer term, it could blunt his ambitions for China to offer an alternative to the United States as the global leader dictating the rules for governance and trade.
European frustrations with Chinese policies have been mounting, but they crystallised this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. China's obfuscation of its early missteps in containing the coronavirus and its failure at "mask diplomacy" soured public sentiment in several countries, especially the Netherlands and Spain, where protective gear and other supplies that were purchased, not donated, were found to be defective.
That has hardened views that China's authoritarianism is fundamentally at odds with Europe's political values despite continued pledges that Beijing seeks peaceful collaboration. So has the imposition of a new national security law in Hong Kong that has been used to crack down on dissent in the semi-autonomous territory.
"It makes it really hard for them to convey a message of cooperation and peacefulness and harmonious society if at the same time you see schoolgirls being beaten up by the Hong Kong police," said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, referring to an incident captured on video recently.
Xi on Monday called for a "comprehensive strategic partnership" during a virtual summit with the European Union's leadership, but the meeting, which was once supposed to cement closer economic ties, ended with little progress on even a more limited investment pact. Instead it exposed rifts that had previously been pushed to the background.
Xi faced — and brushed aside — unusually harsh criticism on a variety of issues that reflected growing popular animosity toward China. The Europeans accused China of slow-walking promises to combat climate change. They criticized the new crackdown in Hong Kong and the long-standing one in Tibet. The Europeans also raised the imprisonment of a Swedish bookseller, the arrests of two Canadians in transparent retaliation for a criminal extradition case, and China's unilateral moves in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
"Real differences exist, and we won't paper over them," Charles Michel, president of the European Council, the union's policymaking body, said after the virtual summit Monday.
Alluding to those who would play the continent off the world's two quarrelling powers, he added, "Europe needs to be a player, not a playing field."
For now, Europe has not gone as far as the Trump administration, which has moved to dismantle decades of political, economic and social engagement, setting the stage for a new era of confrontation regardless of the outcome of the US presidential election.
Still, China faces pushback from European nations over the same issues that have inflamed relations with the United States — if not yet with the fevered pitch of the Trump administration's most hawkish officials.
Several countries, including Britain, France and Slovenia, have followed the United States in moving to restrict investments by Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, while others are leaving open the possibility.
Italy, which only last year signed up for China's Belt and Road investment and development project, adopted a parliamentary resolution in support of Hong Kong's protesters and has joined other nations in opposing the new security law imposed by Beijing.
Even Germany, the country with the most trade with China and a driving force in European policy, has signalled growing impatience. The foreign minister, Heiko Maas, came to the Czechs' defense, warning Wang, his Chinese counterpart, that "threats do not fit in here." The next day Germany unveiled a new strategy that thrusts it into the geopolitical struggle over China's military expansion in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said Monday that the European Union remained committed to the principle of multilateral cooperation. She said Europe was open to dealing with China despite the political differences that are increasingly overshadowing the economic agenda.
"In certain areas problems have increased," she said after two hours of discussions with Xi. "We have to acknowledge that. But we are also going to attempt to find solutions, even if we are going to crawl forward bit by bit."
Merkel's predilection not to mix politics and economics in dealing with China has come under growing pressure, as it has with Russia over President Vladimir Putin's repressive behaviour.
Merkel had originally planned Monday's meeting as a summit in Leipzig, Germany, with Xi and all of the union's leaders that would culminate in the signing of an investment treaty that has been years in the making. The in-person summit was derailed by the pandemic. The hoped-for agreement stalled over China's refusal to make meaningful concessions that would open its domestic market to European companies.
"With market access, it is not a question of meeting halfway but rebalancing the asymmetry," said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, who also participated in Monday's meetings. "We need China to move on those issues."
It is not clear that China is willing to do so, especially as its economy has begun churning again while others are still staggering from the pandemic. Xi remains committed to a heavy state role in the economy that has for years delayed pledges to open up important sectors to foreign competition. On issues involving human rights, he also bluntly told the Europeans that his country does not need lectures, according to Xinhua, China's state-run news agency.
That sort of tone has exacerbated tensions. "Everything has changed after the pandemic, but they are still using this very rigid and tough hegemonic diplomatic method," said Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst in Beijing.
The mounting tensions spilled into public when Wang visited five countries before Monday's summit: Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France and Germany. The tour was widely seen as an effort to mend fences, but he faced a flurry of criticism instead and stirred even more controversy of his own.
In Norway, he warned against awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to protesters in Hong Kong. He implied that doing so could again plunge bilateral relations into a deep freeze, as happened when the prize committee, which is independent of the Norwegian government, gave the award to Chinese pro-democracy dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010.
In Rome, Paris and Berlin, he faced sharp questions about China's new security law in Hong Kong, which he was told violated Beijing's pledges to respect the territory's autonomy and democracy. Wang responded defiantly, echoing China's position that Hong Kong is an internal matter, not subject to discussion, like the crackdown on Muslims in the far western province of Xinjiang.
It was the Chinese official's response on Taiwan, however, that rankled most. The president of the Czech Senate, Milos Vystrcil, arrived in Taiwan in the middle of Wang's visit, leading a delegation of business executives to the self-governing island that China claims as its territory.
"The Chinese government and Chinese people won't take a laissez-faire attitude or sit idly by and will make him pay a heavy price for his shortsighted behaviour and political opportunism," Wang said.
The threat, delivered on German soil, might once have been ignored, but in today's climate it prompted an unusual display of European solidarity. This type of "Wolf Warrior" diplomacy, named after two popular Chinese nationalistic films, has come to dominate China's relations with Europe, and it has done much to alienate leaders and the general public alike.
According to a survey published last week by the European Council on Foreign Relations, only 7 per cent of Europeans believe that China is a useful ally in the fight against the pandemic; 62 per cent view the country in a negative light.
"It's very alienating, but they don't seem to be wanting to back down," said Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst with the Mercator Institute of China Studies in Berlin, citing controversies set off by blustery warnings delivered by Chinese ambassadors on Twitter. "If anything, they've been doubling down."
Written by: Steven Lee Myers
Photographs by: Lam Yik Fei
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