It is now 20 years since democracy protestors occupied Tiananmen Square. China's non-violent movement wanted "more democracy and less corruption" from the Communist Party that had begun the process of economic modernization but still resisted political reform. While the Europe "whole and free" to which U.S. President George H.W. Bush aspired in May 1989 votes freely this week in elections for the European Parliament, the hopes of a democratic China remain unfulfilled. The European Union can, and must, do more.
Since Tiananmen China has, of course, changed beyond recognition. But the communist regime's human rights record has barely improved. After years of rapid economic growth, China has moved toward a form of "consultative authoritarianism." People are able to express discontent and pressure for economic and social improvements, but only to a point.
In a pre-Olympics round-up, all the Chinese with whom I had contact -- dissidents, reformists like environmentalist Hu Jia, ex-prisoners-of-conscience -- were arrested, imprisoned and in some cases tortured, even to this day. One, a young man named Cao Dong, who had been released in 2006 after having served a three-year sentence, was rearrested that same year just after meeting me. He is now back in Tianshui jail, locked up together with 15 Tiananmen protestors, who have been imprisoned now for 20 years without charges. Gao Zhisheng, the courageous Christian human-rights attorney who was expected to win last year's Nobel Peace Prize (the committee caved in to Chinese pressure) has been tortured so much in prison that he has attempted suicide twice.
Unfortunately, Europe's stance toward human-rights abuses in China has become increasingly spineless. The EU withdrew post-Tiananmen sanctions in the early 1990s. Since then commercial gain has subordinated any attempt to influence China's political modernization.
The EU acquiesced in China's entry into the WTO, throwing away its biggest leverage over Beijing in return for very limited change to China's system of economic governance. China has increasingly backtracked on its WTO commitments to open its economy -- which could in turn have helped political liberalization. China has attracted increasing aid from Germany, France and the European Commission itself, which spends more than €100 million ($141 million) a year on trade-related and business projects. It even spends €1 million a year on a fruitless Human Rights Dialogue. Paris and Berlin also wish to remove the EU's arms embargo -- the last remaining post-Tiananmen-massacre sanction imposed by Europe.
The EU has become so fixated on the short-term goals associated with uncritical geostrategic engagement with China that any real concern over human rights has gone out the window. Indeed, it is striking that in China the EU has eschewed the kind of initiatives it implements elsewhere in the world, such as linking development funds to governance reform. The EU is negotiating a new agreement with China that is predicated upon a new strategic partnership. Human rights doesn't warrant a mention.
Beijing understands the EU's desire for engagement above all else and skilfully pressures European leaders to downplay human rights. China cancelled its annual summit with the EU in December 2008 after some leaders had indicated a willingness to meet the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. Beijing's ploy worked. To get EU-China summits back on track and win China over to a G-20 deal, France said in March that it would not recognize Tibetans' claims to independence. Last year the British Foreign Office recognized China's sovereignty over Tibet, a lovely country whose gentle people the Dalai Lama now says are "in prison."
In 2008, to secure Beijing's go-ahead for a new high-level EU-China forum on trade and economics, French President Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded in pushing the EU line on Taiwan toward the Chinese position -- urging Taipei not to hold a referendum on independence.
Twenty years on from Tiananmen, the EU must realize that it is mistaken to base policy on a trade-off between diplomatic stability and human rights. It is unlikely that one-party rule can cope with an increasingly complex set of social demands. China's people haven't given up their dreams of democracy. The thousands of Chinese citizens who last year signed the so-called Charter 08 -- in emulation of Charter 77, a civic movement that pushed for human rights in communist Czechoslovakia -- represent a new political challenge to the regime. Many have been arrested and languish among the six million or so in China's gulag, where torture is widespread, according to United Nation's rapporteur Manfred Nowak.
The Chinese people deserve the European Union's support in their efforts to achieve the democracy we ourselves enjoy.
Mr. McMillan-Scott (U.K., Conservative) is a vice-president of the European Parliament and founder of the EU's €140 million Democracy and Human Rights Instrument.