Early April in Beijing and the sky is unusually clear and blue, cherry blossoms are in full bloom and the roads are eerily quiet. It’s “tomb sweeping” day and most of my Chinese friends and colleagues are on holiday, commemorating their ancestors.
I’m in Beijing for meetings on EU-China relations. I need to get my thoughts together, write up my talking points for the upcoming seminars. But I can’t concentrate. And since all offices and shops are shut, it’s the perfect moment to visit the Great Wall.
And so here I am, climbing up the long and winding road that takes me to the bus stop that takes me to the cable car that takes me — finally — to one small but majestic portion of the Great Wall.
It’s breath-taking. All the pictures I’ve seen do not prepare me for the magnificent reality. Like everyone else I’ve looked up the impressive facts and figures. The Wall is old, long and high — and every stone, every inch has an interesting story to tell. But seeing is believing, and the Wall, with its majestic vistas and amazing construction, does not disappoint.
I like the legends and the history. But I’m more focused on modern-day China and the enormous challenge of economic transformation that President Xi Jinping has embarked on. I’m also watching my fellow tourists who are slowly wheezing up the steep slope with me.
We are a motley bunch. Chinese grandmas and grandpas with toddlers in tow, young lovers out on a date, foreign tourists from India, Indonesia and the Philippines and an attractive blonde woman on her own who stops every two minutes or so to take a selfie with the Wall as a backdrop. Who needs friends when you have a smartphone?
The return journey to Beijing is complicated as the roads clog up with traffic and our driver struggles to find ingenious back roads to get us to the hotel. We get to see more cherry blossoms on the side roads, small carts full of fruit, strawberries for sale in tiny stalls. It’s like going back in time.
Tomorrow Beijing will be back to normal, our driver warns. Beware of pollution and traffic jams, he says. Be prepared.
I am. And not just for the congested roads and stinging eyes. I’m all geared up for some interesting discussions with Chinese academics and think tank representatives on relations between China and Europe.
I’ve been tracking the ups and down of relations between Europe and China for many years and the EU-China “strategic partnership” continues to fascinate and intrigue me.
Unlike the US, Europe doesn’t see China as a rival or competitor. Never having achieved the “super power” status, Europe isn’t too wary of the changed world order and the rise of China — and India, Asean and others.
Europe isn’t an Asian power but an Asian partner, EU policymakers insist. There is much that the EU and China can do together on the bilateral level and on the global stage. Europe is a strong supporter of China’s new economic transformation agenda. Its mutual say Chinese officials who insist that Beijing wants a stronger and more integrated Europe.
Both sides are cooperating on a range of issues, including China’s plans to build a “One Belt, One Road” connectivity network linking Europe and Asia. There is heady talk of an EU-China partnership on urbanisation, building 5G technology and warmer people-to-people relations.
This is heartening — but its only part of the story. In the public discussions in Beijing, Chinese academics make no secret of their anger at Europe’s stance on two key issues: the EU’s reluctance to grant China “market economy status” and Europe’s failure to lift the arms embargo imposed on Beijing after the Tiananmen Square clampdown in 1989.
There are accusations that Europe is too easily swayed by American pressure to take a tougher stance against China. And since it is not a “hard” security actor, some Chinese colleagues insist that the EU has no business making statements on rising tensions in the South China Seas.
Europeans, for their part, complain about market access restrictions facing European exporters and investors, the slow pace of economic reform in China and worry about the country’s increased assertiveness on the regional stage. There are worries about China’s overcapacity in sectors such as steel which is making life difficult for Europe’s steelmakers.
But while the talk sometimes gets tough, it’s clear that Europe and China need each other. Trade between the two sides is worth about 1.5 billion euros a day. An estimated three million jobs in Europe depend on relations with China. Beijing needs Europe’s intellectual expertise, technology and experience.
Both sides face the challenge of ensuring growth and jobs, looking after their ageing population while also providing hope and employment for young people. There is talk of synergies between the EU 2020 agenda for growth and jobs and China’s plans for a “new normal” of lower but high-quality, sustainable and inclusive growth.
As European and Chinese leaders prepare to meet in Beijing in July for their 18th summit, it is clear that EU-China relations have grown and matured over the years. Brussels and Beijing talk to each other on multiple topics and in multiple fora.
There are disagreements and occasional bitterness and sparring. But the conversation is intense, much more so than the EU’s relations with other Asian nations. There is mutual curiosity. And the beginnings of a mutual understanding.
In a world marked by inter-state rivalries, power struggles and competition between nations, can anyone really — and realistically — ask for more?