The 2nd Tsinghua-Groningen Symposium on Misunderstandings in China-EU Relations was held successfully

Vasilis Trigkas

 On the 26th of October 2013 the annual symposium of the Tsinghua-Groningen Research Cooperation on China-EU Relations took place at the Unisplendour International Center in Tsinghua’s University Science Park. The Symposium attracted leading Chinese and European academics and diplomats as well as young researchers.


The relationship between China and the EU can no longer be a niche academic topic in international politics studied by an academic minority. The two sides of the Eurasian landmass account for more than 1/3 of global GDP, 1/4 of global population and close to half of global trade flows. Yet the 10-year-long comprehensive strategic partnership between the two behemoths has experienced a prolonged phase of inertia, mainly because of misunderstandings about political values and the long-term strategic calculations in Brussels and Beijing. The Tsinghua-Groningen Symposium invited distinguished academics, think-tank experts and diplomats to share their insights on how China and the EU could neutralize the misunderstandings and promote a stronger partnership shaping a multipolar world.

Prof. Shi Zhiqin, director of the Institute of International Studies of Tsinghua University called the Tsinghua-Groningen symposium an extraordinary agora, attracting the cream of European and Chinese experts on Sino-EU relations. The symposium sets the foundations for a constructive track-2 dialogue, which aims to resolve the misunderstandings and help boost the Sino-EU relationship to a new level of unprecedented, institutionalized partnership. He urged speakers to engage in a warm dialogue and consider the implications for world harmony and peace of a strong and committed EU-China couple. The Sino-EU marriage that Romano Prodi described in 2003 may have not yet taken place, however it is within the preferences of both sides Shi argued. China and Europe are two of the world’s oldest civilizations and their philosophical models have greatly shaped the identity of the world. This endows the two partners with a strong responsibility to safeguard peace and harmony in a multipolar and diverse world.

Professor Jan van der Harst from the University of Groningen summed up the workshop and made the closing statement. He pointed out that the cooperation between Tsinghua University and the University of Groningen is unusually rich in that it includes teaching, research initiatives and a workshop series. It has indeed provided a wonderful and highly constructive platform for academic exchanges between leading Chinese and European scholars. Professor van der Harst expressed his confidence that such venues promote the study and development of China-EU relations and help policy makers address their misperceptions. The Sino-EU partnership is too big to fail he insisted.


The core argument of the symposium was that both the EU and China support a multipolar world yet their strategies in pursuing such an end differ, for they reflect diverse historical experiences. China’s diplomatic imperative is based on the idea of absolute sovereignty. Accordingly, a state must not impose its political, social and religious views on other states. This is sometimes at odd with EU’s universal institutionalism as expressed in the preeminent role of individual human rights.

Chinese need to study more European history and Europeans more Chinese history and thus break away from a Eurocentric or Sinocentric worldview. Building a deeper understanding about the values of each civilization is a first-order condition for resolving value misperceptions and overcoming misunderstanding. At the same time diplomats in China and Europe need to promote technocratic solutions to trade and commercial disputes. These two combined will maximize China-EU strategic trust and boost the relationship to new grounds.

As Heraclitus once mentioned, “change is the only constant” in human affairs. This is also reflected in China’s yinyang (陰陽). The world is indeed changing at an accelerating pace. The great divergence of history in the 18th century is now closing sharply. In this new world a responsible, fully institutionalized and comprehensive strategic Sino-EU partnership accepting cultural pluralism may well become the safest guarantor to harmony and peace.

The success of the 2012 and the 2013 Sino-EU conferences raises the stakes of the Tsinghua-Groningen partnership. Both sides look forward to the continuation and the upgrade of this flourishing cooperation and hope to engage in more academic exchanges, conferences and joint publications.

Speakers: Cui Hongjiang, Enrico Fardella, Frank Gaenssmantel, Manuel Garcia, Huan Qingzhi, Tian Dewen, Zhang Lihua, Zhao Chen

Findings and Discussion

• Mutualizing Common Interests and Resolving Technical Disputes

Prof. Huan Qingzhi reviewed the recent history of the Sino-EU partnership and argued that the time is ripe for the two sides to shape a more comprehensive & fully institutionalized partnership not limited to commerce and economics but also extended to other fields, like security, space cooperation and culture. Yet EU-China diplomats need to make sure that each side can understand the key common interests of the other and thus develop an institutionalized China-EU mechanism to protect and enhance these interests.

Dr. Frank Gaenssmantel supported that whether and how disputes between the EU and China can be solved may depend on the perceptions of policy makers about the nature of the issue at stake. When it is perceived to be primarily technical, then negotiators will look for a solution based on technocratic rules. When the issue appears political then diplomats will engage in bargaining based on carrots and sticks. In addition it is crucial to examine the intangible meaning attached to the issue at stake, i.e. the degree and importance of symbolic connotations: Weak symbolic connotations facilitate rational negotiating behavior while strong symbolic connotations make it more difficult to give up the original position. Case studies from China-EU relations (on the establishment of the human rights dialogue, market economy status, and cooperation on climate change) seem to suggest that similar issue perceptions facilitate agreement. Strong symbolic meaning may indeed impede agreement. So in a way one could say, that issues are what diplomats make of them. On these grounds the perspective for a full partnership and cooperation agreement look pessimistic. On the other hand a bilateral investment agreement is within reach.


Civilizational Values’ Misperceptions shape Misunderstanding

Prof. Tian Dewen argued that misperceptions on cultural values of China and Europe nurture misunderstanding. This is evident in the way China and Europe have applied force in international affairs. For the Chinese power is only a means to an end. The ideal is harmony. This is reflected through a concrete support to hierarchy and social identity. “Let the king be a king, the minister a minister, the father a father, the son a son” Confucius proclaimed. Social stability and ideal harmony are the pillars of the Chinese political identity.

On the other hand, the foreign policy of the West as expressed through universalism is based on power. In that sense, morality is a disguise promoting national interests. Christian universalism promoted crusades, free trade universalism led to opium war; value universalism shaped the way to neo-interventionism and New Imperialism. Ideological hegemony and neo interventionism lead to the Iraq War in 2003, which was built on falsified evidence on WMD and on the pseudo-call for democratization. Some European countries support neo-imperialism others are more cautious.

China and Europe need to abandon the neo-imperialistic era. In doing so they must build strategic mutual trust. The EU must understand that the growth of China is conducive to stability, world peace and prosperity. The Chinese dream called for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation yet it made no call for a Chinese hegemony or Chinese universal values. China has consistently promoted a multipolar world and sees a united EU as one of the most important partners in such a system.

Prof. Zhang Lihua argued that the cultural values of China and the EU are more aligned than widespread beliefs of political science orthodoxy would suggest. China is the founder of the Eastern civilization while Europe is the founder of the West. Chinese values are still evident in the new security concept of the Chinese government. Also many of Europe’s classical values are reflected in modern EU’s diplomacy. In many cases Chinese and European values converge.

For instance, both China and the EU are against horizontal and vertical nuclear proliferation. They promote arms control and aim to develop a multi-polar world. The EU supports the rule of law, democratization and personal freedom. China has also emphasized democracy, rule of law, patriotism, socialism, and inclusion. On a macro-level China and the EU support the same values. Yet on a micro-level China and Europe pursue a different set of policies.

The democracy promoted by the EU is based on a multiparty parliament of the English tradition. The democracy promoted by China since 1982 is based on socialism. Power belongs to the people and not the holders of capital. It is the people’s congress system. China has a different concept of democracy and representation. The rule of law in the EU means that the law is superior to anyone. Chinese government has also attested the predominance of the rule of law since 1996. Indeed the law is superior to party decisions. The constitution is superior to any political decision and thus in this realm Chinese and EU values converge. After all the two sides have a flourishing judicial cooperation agreement.

Bridging the Value Misunderstanding: Accepting the Uniqueness of Civilizations and promoting a diverse world.

Prof. Cui Hongjiang noticed that misunderstanding will decline once the EU asks non-western civilizations to contribute in today’s evolving world based on their unique historical, political and philosophical experience on human rights and political representation.

In the past, Europeans had used their own civilizational experience to form a system of governance, define human rights, and form laws etc. They tried consistently to export it violently to Africa, South America and Asia. Today, the EU has begun to realize that trying to universalize a single system of thinking in a multipolar world is self-defeating. The China-EU partnership with moments of affection and moments of coldness is still the most promising relationship in deconstructing the old anachronistic system and reconstructing it based on a universal experience that accepts the diversity of cultures and the pluralism of political traditions. As Europe is becoming more diverse accepting other civilizations the EU-China relationship will become stronger.

Dr. Enrico Fardell noticed that in Sino-Italian and in China-EU relations it is essential to distinguish between misunderstanding and misperception. Misunderstanding as a failure to understand something correctly that leads to disagreement can be seen in this context – namely in the analysis of a bilateral relation – as incapability to achieve a convergence between common interests. Misperception on the other side should be seen as incapability to correctly estimate the other side’s intentions. Misperception can thus lead to misunderstanding but it can simply impede contact and prolong a stalemate.

In the case of Sino-Italian relations, it seems that there were no ‘real’ misunderstandings in the bilateral relationship: they were ‘fake’ misunderstanding, or to put it better, constraints imposed by the bipolar structure of the international system and the Cold War logic that inspired it. Misperception however remains to this day as the major factor for potential stalemate and/or ‘real’ misunderstanding between the differences in institutional morphology of the two countries. The potential for misperception was only partially reduced after the establishment of diplomatic relations in November 1970: the above-mentioned ‘peculiarities’ of Italian democracy and Chinese political system are in fact still at play today.

Dr. Zhao Chen argued that both the EU and China support a multipolar world, yet they tend to pursue different strategies in achieving such an end based on their civilizational values. The global governance model that the EU is looking to promote is institutionalism based on the preeminence of individual human rights. The EU’s political system has very strong “supranationality”. It is a sui generis project based on levering sovereignty from the nation-states to a supranational authority, like the European Commission in Brussels. Europe has shaped a post-modern world with a post-modern thought. It is in a sense the continuity of Emmanuel Kant’s democratic peace theory.

Chinese global governance is egalitarian and sovereign. For Chinese statesmen, equality and respect is the central idea. Developed and developing countries should have a key footing in the international system, and Europe should view both as equal partners. The Chinese egalitarian goal of a multipolar world has been shaped by a practical and a historical imperative. China as a developing country is looking to change the imbalance in international organizations imposed at a time of Western hegemony and military coercion. In addition China has experienced the calamities of western aggression. Chinese has been invaded and brutalized since the opium war era. The EU should take these Chinese historical experiences in consideration in its engagement with China.


Dr. Manuel Garcia argued that global history has evolved from a Eurocentric to a Sinocentric approach. The School of California gives further details on the Eurocentric, or more precisely Anglocentric, view of global history. This has primarily regarded Great Britain and its colonies as the pivotal axis of analysis for the study of global movements, exchanges, meetings and encounters between Europe and the East. John Brewer has criticised this as an historiographic ‘error’ and stated that global history should not be conceptualized through the economic development of Great Britain and its colonies. Craig Clunas refers to the essential meaning of the term ‘global’, which does not uniquely mean the history of the great powers of Europe and its colonies.

For the case of Sinocentrism we should stress two facts: Firstly, the acceptance of such Eurocentric mistake by western scholars during the last decade has shifted the accent towards an ‘exceptionality’ of the East, mainly the Chinese world and its characteristics, by comparing the different paths of economic development of China and Europe during the period of the industrial revolution. Secondly, this shift and the exclusive focus on China and its particularities has led in some cases to an ‘abuse’ of the ‘great divergence’ debate, namely when Chinese scholars who define themselves as practitioners of global history, are in fact writing a new history of China and the experience of Chinese communities in the rest of the world. A practical advice for China is to invite more European scholars and internationalize its universities. The biggest Chinese universities have only a 1% ration of foreign to Chinese staff.


About the author:

Vasilis Trigkas (Greece) is a graduate student of the department of International Relations, Tsinghua University.