Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 10 December 2020


WSJ News Exclusive | China-Europe Trade Forum Canceled After China Sought to Bar Critics

in Brussels and
in Hong Kong

An annual China-Europe trade forum was quietly canceled last month after European organizers rejected Chinese demands to ban participants critical of Beijing.

The move, not previously reported, highlights an increasingly difficult balance Europe is trying to strike between safeguarding business interests and upholding democratic values in the face of China’s increasingly aggressive global stance. The U.S. and Australia have taken more forceful stands against pressure from China, sparking public fights and trade battles.

European Council President Charles Michel prepared to take questions at an online news conference following an EU-China virtual summit in September. Photo: Yves Herman/Associated Press

The annual China-EU CEO and Former Senior Officials Dialogue—a closed-door event that includes around 40 chief executives, top officials and academics from Europe and China—would have been its fourth edition and taken place this year by videoconference.

In previous years, participant lists weren’t controversial, organizers say. But this year, European organizers at BusinessEurope, an umbrella organization for the European Union’s national business lobbies, rejected Chinese demands to exclude certain participants.

‘Regrettably this year’s dialogue…had to be canceled.’

— Peter Sennekamp, BusinessEurope spokesman

The event’s cancellation offers a fresh sign of Europe’s hardening stance toward Beijing, a shift that became evident last year when the bloc described China as a systemic rival, and was underscored during the coronavirus pandemic with senior EU officials blaming China for disinformation. But the reluctance on both sides to escalate this conflict and the organizers’ insistence that another dialogue should take place again next year highlight the conflicting forces at play.

“We held three very successful editions of this dialogue that takes place every year, alternating in Brussels and Beijing,” said BusinessEurope spokesman Peter Sennekamp. “Regrettably this year’s dialogue…had to be canceled.”

“We hope to hold the dialogues next year and in person,” said a member of the China Center for International Economic Exchange, the association co-organizing the event, who declined to be named. The CCIEE operates under the guidance and supervision of China’s top state economic planning agency. The CCIEE official noted that dialogues with other countries had been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The CCIEE official, when pressed about the reasons for the cancellation, said that the dialogue’s aim was to promote international economic research and trade cooperation but that some participants didn’t seem to fit the principle or goal of the event. He also said that one participant had in a previous year broken the meeting’s ground rule that listeners may use information they hear in sessions but not disclose who made which comments. He wouldn’t say who had violated the so-called Chatham House rules.

Officials familiar with the exchange say the two people Beijing wanted to exclude from this year’s virtual event were Reinhard Bütikofer, the European Parliament’s chairman of the EU-China caucus who has publicly criticized Beijing over Hong Kong and its treatment of the Uighur minority; and Mikko Huotari, the head of Merics, a German think tank critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment on the cancellation.

Chinese officials have sought to ban German politicians, academics and journalists from past events, but this is the first time they targeted a senior European parliamentarian in charge of EU-China relations. The move is notable in part because China is in the process of negotiating an investment agreement with the bloc, and talks are advancing more slowly than Chinese officials have said they would like.

BusinessEurope declined to comment on the specifics of the cancellation.

Mr. Bütikofer declined to comment on the matter.

Mr. Huotari said he wasn’t informed why the Chinese side objected to the setup of the dialogue.

“However, it is not new for European stakeholders to encounter difficulties to come to a mutual agreement on the prerequisites for such meetings,” Mr. Huotari said. “We very much respect BusinessEurope’s decision to not hold the dialogue this year as a consequence.”

The head of the EU-China Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, Jörg Wuttke, said he was aware of the cancellation and that his organization had separately refused to give in to Chinese demands to leave out a company representative from one event he was organizing. That event did take place, he said.

In a report published by the Chamber in September, Mr. Wuttke criticized China’s “small but highly conspicuous ‘army of wolf warriors’ in the foreign affairs ministry” who have escalated Twitter wars with politicians around the world. Chinese diplomats have taken on Australia after it called for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, threatened France and canceled a nationwide tour by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra after a tussle with the city’s mayor over Taiwan.

“They do not like sections of our reports, and tell me so,” Mr. Wuttke said.

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