French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands during a press conference in Beijing, China, January 9, 2018.
President Emmanuel Macron addressed many topics with ardor and conviction during his first trip to China since his election, ranging from the balance of trade, with negotiations on cheese and French beef, to the climate, nuclear power, and technology. Horse and baby panda were also honored. But human rights did not receive such attention from the French president.
Yet President Macron was visiting a country with a particularly long list of human rights abuses. Since 2013, Xi Jinping has dampened hopes of improvements in human rights, expressing contempt for them and rejecting any democratic impulse. The country is still among those that carry out the most executions. The government stifles any form of dissent, violates religious freedom, persecutes ethnic minorities, exercises massive control over the Internet and independent groups, and arbitrarily suppresses and detains rights defenders and government opponents.
The death last July from cancer of Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, surrounded by his jailers was undoubtedly one of the most symbolic images of the ruthless repression under Xi Jinping. The enforced disappearance of his widow, Liu Xia, confirms the brutality of the Chinese authorities. China extends its abusive policies beyond its borders, trying to obstruct United Nations human rights protections and even to manipulate Interpol.
This seems to have in no way disturbed the French President, who even offered the autocrat Xi a horse of the Republican Guard as a sign of friendship. During the news conference with his counterpart – where journalists did not have the opportunity to ask questions, Macron alluded to fundamental rights and freedoms, but mainly to indicate that diplomacy between France and China would take place while respecting the “differences” between the two countries on this matter. At the end of the visit, Macron said that he had discussed these matters privately with Xi, without specifying the nature of their exchanges.
President Macron’s extreme shyness over China’s multiple human rights violations contradicts his statement, at the end of last summer, to an audience of French ambassadors that “diplomatic and economic exchanges with (…) China cannot justify that we cover up with a modest veil the question of human rights because then it is ourselves that we betray.” His behavior in China also contrasts with his vibrant statements on the importance for France to promote freedom and justice internationally. He promoted these values vigorously with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during his visit to France last week.
Macron positions himself as a firm president and wants France to appear strong on the international scene. To renounce the principles he claims so ardently and slip them under the heavy carpet of the country’s strategic and economic interests appears, on the contrary, to be sign of inconsistency and weakness in the light of his own commitments. It sends the autocrats the message that France can accommodate massive violations for lucrative contracts, reinforcing their power. And to the persecuted like Liu Xia and countless others, that they cannot count on France to defend them.