EU, China need to bridge 'trust gap'

Updated: 2012-05-25 10:43

By Zhengxu Wang (China Daily European Weekly)

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Survey reveals many areas where the two sides can have constructive relationships

EU, China need to bridge 'trust gap'

As the eurozone crisis deepens, the European Union's dependence on Chinese pockets increases. The signs are promising. Both Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang have recently visited Europe - a clear signal that China sees the eurozone's safe navigation through its debt crisis as integral to its own sustainable development. Ensuing Chinese media statements were littered with positive references to partnerships, cooperation and mutual benefits; the impasse over human rights issues that peaked in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics has long faded from the foreground of China-EU relations, relegated by the more pragmatic economic priorities that are the inevitable accompaniment to global financial crises.

But there is little room for complacency, especially if European governments are to seize the opportunities afforded by healthy relations with China when they need them most. The relationship is complex, with over 24 official sectoral dialogues and agreements in place, in addition to regular political, trade and economic dialogue meetings.

But despite these regular exchanges, Europeans still find the Chinese hard to fathom, and vice versa. The EU's former ambassador to Beijing, Klaus Ebermann remarked recently that a "trust gap" exists between China and Europe, commenting that "a political deficit" is preventing a comprehensive, dual approach to world affairs. He told The Parliament Magazine: "One realises that underneath this sugar coating has remained a gaping hole."

Chinese State Councilor Liu Yandong explicitly acknowledged the trust deficit on a visit to the EU headquarters in mid-April to launch the first China-EU High Level People-to-People Exchange dialogue - a new third strand to the bilateral relationship alongside strategic dialogue and trade talks.

This marked a high-profile acknowledgement of the importance of public support from within both China and the EU for relations to flourish. The notion that communication between people is the key to fruitful diplomatic relations underpins a 1.4-million-euro European Commission-funded project led by the China Policy Institute, the research institute for the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

We set out to investigate how the Chinese really view the EU; the idea being that a deeper understanding of the opportunities and challenges in China will enable EU institutions and nation states to shape an effective response to its rise, economically, politically and culturally. The project titled Disaggregating Chinese Perceptions of the EU and the Implications for the EU's China Policy comprises a series of in-depth interviews and focus groups with Chinese government officials, the general public, academics, the business community, journalists and activists in organized civil society.

The findings promise to inform the EU's future strategy for how it pursues relations with China - and the results so far are positive. Despite fundamental differences of opinion, we discovered a huge reservoir of goodwill in China which the EU can tap into in order to improve relations and boost its image. Perhaps most striking is the level of positivity among China's political ranks. More than 80 percent of 200 government officials surveyed expressed a favorable impression of the EU and its citizens, substantially higher than their impressions of the US, Russia or Japan, and better than the impression of the EU held by the Chinese public.

Our research has revealed that the environment, the development of civil society and the Internet represent major opportunities for cooperation between the EU and China, closely followed by trade, education and culture. The main controversies that threaten to thwart progress center on human rights, Tibet and intellectual property rights.

The public surveys took place across five cities in 2009 and 2010. Perhaps with scars still raw from the Olympic torch relay protests in Europe, participants criticized Europeans for being unfriendly, arrogant and prejudiced, of having a superiority complex and being jealous of China for its rapid economic development.

However, 93 percent of respondents still saw China and the EU as partners or friends, with only 7 percent seeing them as enemies or rivals. A minority, 46 percent, did not view China-EU relations as positive.

A lack of knowledge and education about the European system had a significant bearing on how Chinese people looked upon the EU. More than 70 percent of officials surveyed said their knowledge of the EU was insufficient. Most government officials regarded the EU's concept of democracy as a good thing and said it was important for Chinese officials to improve their understanding of European democratic politics. Certainly the research suggests that the more people know about the EU and its complexities, the more positively they view it, and that elite groups in particular are keen to learn more.

The EU has already done a lot of work to promote cooperation with China, but it is not clear how much of this is widely understood within the country. The EU has an opportunity to strengthen its public relations work in China, not only to promote its culture, which is already well received, but to improve understanding of its political systems, emphasizing its role in preserving peace, promoting justice and protecting the environment.

These findings have a series of implications for how the EU approaches relations with China. To counter accusations of arrogance, the EU might find it more productive to adopt the role of friendly helper and partner rather than that of teacher bringing pressure to bear, without sacrificing the robustness of its own positions. The attractiveness of European culture constitutes a formidable component of the EU's soft power in China. The EU could increase its soft power by further building trust and reducing perceptions of European aggressiveness.

By helping Chinese citizens to acquire more knowledge about Europe, the EU would at the same time boost its popularity. After all, there is a serious asymmetry between EU and China in efforts to learn about each other. In Chinese bookstores you can readily find reams of books on EU history, culture, politics and economy. Many of these books are authored by Europeans and translated into Chinese by Chinese publishers. The same cannot be said for books about China that are available in Europe. In a typical European bookstore you see merely a few dozen books about China, mostly confined to offering tips on doing business there.

One conclusion we have reached is that the EU should consider intensifying a targeted public information policy in China. The surveys show the EU would benefit from emphasizing its role in preserving peace, promoting justice, and in fighting poverty and international terrorism, as well as promoting its culture and understanding of its political systems. An integrated communications strategy to improve the EU's image should include a cyberspace strategy to reach young people. The surveys showed that those who access information and news online tend to have a more pro-EU attitude which suggests merit in investing resources in new media and popular social networking websites in China.

The EU can also use films to promote the diversity and strength of its culture in China, as well as promoting more exchanges between university students. The EU also needs to work harder on its image in the poorer western regions of China, where people were less familiar with Europe than in the richer coastal areas. At the core of its information strategy, the EU should promote its role as an environmental actor and further strengthen environmental cooperation. European companies should be encouraged to adopt the same tough environmental standards in China as they adhere to in Europe.

The EU has a major opportunity to help China build its civil society, and it should further expand programs in this field, paying particular attention to how the nature of Chinese social organizations differ from European NGOs. European NGOs should be encouraged to focus on China, acknowledging its special conditions and the role of the State, and the interweaving of State and society.

Culture and education are also areas with huge potential to further improve collaboration, for example, in the field of school history textbooks and school curricula, where the EU and China could develop useful cooperation to improve mutual understanding between young people. Joint history activities, such as history camps and heritage classes held at historical sites, could be used to bring Chinese and European students together on a practical and personal level. Furthermore, joint textbook materials could be developed by educators and academics of China and Europe working together.

It is imperative to reach out to future leaders on both sides. The EU and China should consider establishing a China-EU Young Leaders Training Program in which groups of young officials from China attend intensive three-month summer courses in Europe on the history and origins of European thought, climate change, European civil society and governance, the rule of law, democracy and anti-corruption measures.

The author is deputy director of the China Policy Institute, part of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. He is coordinator of the Disaggregating Chinese Perceptions of the EU and the Implications for the EU's China Policy, funded under the EU Seventh Framework Program. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.