Toward a new EU-China citizen diplomacy

Updated: 2013-10-18 08:55

By Andreas Fulda (China Daily Europe)

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Toward a new EU-China citizen diplomacy

Toward a new EU-China citizen diplomacy

More for people-to-people dialogue program would aid social integration and development

China's unstoppable economic growth and its success in alleviating poverty over three decades have radically changed the way it receives overseas aid.

European member states have begun phasing out their bilateral development assistance. While Germany stopped signing new bilateral aid agreements in 2009, the UK put an end to its aid program to China in 2011.

But overseas aid continues in a different form. Aid provision from individual states has been replaced by new forms of aid delivery from multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Commission.

Significantly, these programs revolve around the idea of citizen diplomacy - the involvement of civil society organizations in the creation of new development initiatives.

In 2005, the World Bank, in collaboration with State Council, China's cabinet, launched the China Development Marketplace to fund innovative social projects run by civil society organizations in China. Three years later, the ADB formed a similar joint initiative that explored new ways to bring the participation of CSOs into the mainstream of Chinese government-run poverty alleviation programs.

The EU has also been active in nurturing a greater political role for European and Chinese CSOs in advancing EU-China relations, through projects such as the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights.

This brand of people power is fast becoming an alternative solution to managing difficult interstate relations and resolving deep-rooted conflicts that political leaders and the private sector are unable to solve.

It is clear that changes in EU-China relations over the course of the 21st century will occur at the intersection of government, the private sector and civil society.

The increasing willingness of European decision-makers to carve out a key role for wider society in the expanding EU-China relationship is evident in recent policy choices.

In February 2012, the EU and the Chinese government introduced the EU-China High Level People-to-People Dialogue. Tagged "the third pillar" of the EU-China dialogue architecture (in addition to the political and economic strands), it is designed to strengthen people-to-people exchanges, identify opportunities for cooperation and foster a greater understanding between the EU and China.

However, while the rhetoric suggests closer European engagement with China, most of the activities that have been officially attributed to this third pillar have been existing initiatives in the fields of education, culture and youth. Few new initiatives have arisen.

This disconnect between words and actions betrays a growing gap between the European Commission's willingness to commit to a broader and more inclusive policy agenda with China and the lack of additional funding support for these new civil society initiatives.

The 2012 EU-China Year of the Intercultural Dialogue is a case in point. Participating European and Chinese organizations were allowed to use the name and logo of the Year of Intercultural Dialogue, provided they could prove that their ongoing activities contributed to the Year's objectives. However new initiatives developed specifically for the Year were required to draw on funding mechanisms already in place.

A similar problem occurred during the 2011 EU-China Year of Youth. While European decision-makers gave their political endorsement for an exchange program involving 100 European and 100 Chinese young people, they overlooked the financial implications of such an initiative. Consequently, European agencies struggled to find the funds required to match the bold political commitments.

The EC says the EU-China High Level People-to-People Dialogue should be "characterized by a flexible structure and lack of bureaucracy". Regrettably this is not the experience so far.

If the people-to-people dialogue is to become a genuine third pillar of the wider strategic partnership between the EU and China, then European decision-makers must consider new and innovative funding avenues. They would do well to draw on experiences gained through previous civil society dialogue initiatives funded by the EU.

The earliest of these was the China-Europe Forum, whose aim was to "strengthen the dialogue between European and Chinese societies" and facilitate the meeting of "representatives of all sectors and of all socio-professional backgrounds" who "take up subjects of concern to them and discuss the issues that are common to our contemporary societies". The forum organized three biennial meetings: in China (2005), Europe (2007) and again in China (2010).

The second initiative, funded by the EU, was the EU-China Civil Society Forum (2008-2010), which aimed to "enable informed public debate on China and Europe-China relations within the EU; a debate grounded on diversified images of China and solutions to problems sought constructively, rather than in confrontational isolation". This forum facilitated study tours in Europe and China and organized three symposia.

The third initiative arose from a call from the EC for proposals from Chinese and European NGOs, public sector operators and higher education institutions for a EU-China Civil Society Dialogue grant of 1 million euros ($1.35 million).

In issuing the call, the EC stated: "Chinese civil society is facing challenges that were familiar to its European counterparts in the past, and would greatly benefit from lessons learned from the EU side while looking together with EU counterparts for a Chinese version of approaches used."

The University of Nottingham responded to this call by preparing a bid with six partners: China Association for NGO Cooperation, Institute for Civil Society at Sun Yat-sen University, University of Nottingham Ningbo China, Stiftung Asienhaus, Great Britain-China Centre and Global Links Initiative. The bid was successful and the university and its partners organized eight civil society dialogues and two international conferences between January 2011 and September 2013.

The EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme on Participatory Public Policy (2011-2013) included target groups such as community-based organizations, consumers, disabled groups, educational organizations, local authorities, migrants, NGOs, women and young people. Over the three years, 800 participants from Europe and China deliberated on a range of issues including climate change, environmental health, labor relations, child welfare, social entrepreneurship, information disclosure, government procurement of CSO services and disability rights. They put insights into practice and jointly designed and implemented 14 follow-up initiatives for civil society participation in public policy.

These three dialogue initiatives demonstrated how the EU could tap into the diversity and vitality of existing civil society networks and become an active supporter of people-to-people dialogue between Europe and China.

To this end, the EC could take the lead and issue a call in 2014 for the establishment of the EU-China People-to-People Dialogue Support Facility. More than just a talking shop, it should seek concrete action and provide funding for follow-up activities. It would run from 2015 until 2020 and would need sufficient resources to implement a minimum of 20 dialogue forums and 10 study tours in Europe and China. This would require a budget of 5 million to 8 million euros.

The P2PDSF could be given a remit to promote grassroots-level dialogue in the fields of education, environment, culture, civil society, public sector reform, disability, gender and LGBT, and youth.

It has the potential to renew the tradition of citizen diplomacy based on the key principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, reciprocity and sustainability developed during the implementation of the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme (2011-13).

The author is senior fellow at the China Policy Institute and lecturer at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. He is also program manager for the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily European Weekly 10/18/2013 page12)