London — The visit to Britain by President Xi Jinping of China is underscoring how European nations are de-emphasizing human rights and security concerns as they compete to benefit from China’s growing economic might.
Prime Minister David Cameron and his chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, have muted public criticism of Chinese political, military and human rights behavior since 2012, and during Mr. Xi’s visit here over the past several days, they have highlighted how increased trade and investment can create more British jobs.
But the shifting European calculations about the allure of doing business with China are hardly limited to Britain, and extend to Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, among other countries. Berlin, too, has been assiduous in its courtship of Beijing and has been hardly strident in its comments on China’s domestic abuses of human rights or its growing military might in Asia.
German exports to China reached 74.5 billion euros, or $84.6 billion, in 2014 — and represented nearly half of the European Union’s total exports to China of €164.7 billion, according to the European Commission. (European Union imports from China were worth €302.5 billion.)
Some large and politically influential German companies are particularly tied to China. Volkswagen, for instance, before its recent admission about cheating on diesel emission standards, got nearly 65 percent of its profit from China, and Daimler, which owns Mercedes, is also heavily invested there, its sales hurt lately by Mr. Xi’s crackdown on corruption and lavish gift-giving.
In a real sense, Britain’s push now for a “golden era” with China, as Mr. Cameron put it, is in direct competition with Germany and, to a lesser degree, France, a country that has been generally more outspoken in its criticism of China.
Germany’s total of about 45 percent of European Union exports to China dwarfs Britain’s 10 percent and France’s 9 percent. And Germany is the only European Union country, besides Finland, to have a positive trade balance with Beijing. Britain, by contrast, has by far the largest trade deficit with China of the five largest bloc economies, about €11.4 billion.
Mr. Osborne in particular sees Britain’s future as a trading nation tied up with a rising and wealthy China. He has made great efforts to praise Beijing and even “take a bit of a risk with the China relationship,” as he said, by visiting the restive Xinjiang region, where Uighur separatists have been repressed by the central government.
Britain, Mr. Osborne said, wanted to be “China’s best partner in the West,” even as the Chinese economy is slowing, and he has tried to prove it, causing frustration and even anger in Washington, especially as Mr. Xi has cracked down on dissent and censored the Internet.
China, like Russia, regards the European Union as an artificial political construct and emphasizes bilateral relations with different countries, sometimes setting one off against another.
Germany, too, has not been above putting its economic interests before those of other Europeans. In one prominent example, the country undermined the position of the European Commission last year in a tariff dispute with China over the import or “dumping” of cheap solar panels. Germany was not alone in opposition, but it weakened the commission’s negotiating stance before a minimum price for the panels was set.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has also been accused of playing down human rights for economic interests, and she inevitably brings with her to China high-level German business representatives.
But she has been more outspoken about noneconomic issues than the British have been. Being more important to China than Britain, and given its history, Germany does not keep entirely silent about Chinese abuses, but the criticism is rarely public. Mr. Xi made a major visit to Berlin in 2014 and praised Berlin and Beijing as “two pillars of growth in Asia and Europe.”
But she, too, has modulated her voice. In 2007, she met with the Dalai Lama, but China reacted angrily, and in the years after, according to Der Spiegel, she has largely kept her criticism private and has not made many public gestures toward dissidents, earning praise from the Chinese government’s English-language mouthpiece, Global Times.
“Merkel once took the lead among European leaders in meeting the Dalai Lama,” the newspaper wrote in 2012. “Germany has the ability to lead a more independent diplomacy in global politics. It should not bury itself in old Europe.”
On her visit to Beijing last year (her seventh since 2005), Ms. Merkel made a careful speech at a university referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the need for “free dialogue,” noting that Germany and China have a continuing forum on human rights. But that forum, like the similar one that the European Union has with China, has produced little of substance.
Last year, in response to Ms. Merkel, the Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang, was quick to point out that China and Germany were “both victims of hacking attacks,” a clear reference to revelations by Edward J. Snowden about American cyberespionage against the two countries.
Concerted efforts have helped in certain human rights cases, like a joint European call for the release of a Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei. But then the British Embassy in China initially refused Mr. Ai a visa, on questionable grounds, to visit Britain in the period in which Mr. Xi would be here. After Mr. Ai protested and there was a public uproar, Britain relented and apologized.
Mr. Ai told Sky News this week that “the British prime minister has had a record on putting human rights aside, which is very bad strategy and also is a very bad aesthetics, because this certainly doesn’t represent the British people.”
In a paper last December for the European Council on Foreign Relations, François Godement, a noted French expert on China, called for more European Union unity on human rights. The weakness of European efforts, he said, stems from “China’s use of its economic leverage, Europe’s current crisis of confidence and the crowding out of Chinese human rights issues by pressing geopolitical concerns closer to Europe.”
The failure of Europe’s human rights approach to China is documented, he noted, in a 2014 study by Katrin Kinzelbach, “The E.U.’s Human Rights Dialogue With China: Quiet Diplomacy and Its Limits.” The study describes quiet diplomacy but also the active opposition of China, including the last-minute cancellation of meetings and the execution of a man whose case was raised by Brussels the same morning a human rights dialogue was starting in Beijing.
“Kinzelbach asks the difficult question — where did Europe’s quiet diplomacy have an impact?” Mr. Godement writes, noting the constant compromise between professed European values and economic expediency.
She quotes a European participant who explained: “I am not aware that the E.U. has demanded results,” adding, “It is just a venue for us to express concern.”