Perfidious Marianne? The France-China Relationship and the Question of Human Rights

Perfidious Marianne?  The France-China Relationship and the Question of Human Rights

On 23rd September after a two-day trial in camera, the Chinese academic Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of inciting separatism in his province of origin, Xinjiang, also known as ‘Chinese Turkestan.’

Ilham Tohti, a 44-year old Professor of Economics at Beijing’s higher education establishment specialized in studying China’s 54 ethnic minorities, Minzu University,  has for more than a decade quietly and moderately pushed for greater consideration to be given to his own Muslim minority, the Uighurs who form the majority people in his native Xinjiang. Ilham Tohti is a respected published academic who has never called for the independence of Xinjiang, but rather has sought dialogue over the betterment of his people’s lot.

I am a French academic working in a university and a city that has close links with China. My institution, Jean Moulin University - Lyon, has had a close relationship with Ilham Tohti’s university since the beginning of this century. I have personally trained a dozen or more of the Minzu’s graduate students. Both student and professorial exchanges have been frequent. In 2005 the two universities established a joint Sino-European Institute for Cultural Studies in Lyon and Beijing. In other words, relations and cooperation could not have been better.

All this occurred in an era before China’s recent ‘soft power’ push, and before the Chinese authorities enhanced attempts to impose their own vision of China on the rest of the world. My colleagues and I had engaged with Chinese universities and in particular with the Minzu University in the hope that a new openness in the humanities and social sciences would come about. For a while, this seemed also to be the policy of our Chinese university partners.

I still believe that both French and Chinese students benefited from these efforts. Of course, French students were able to take a more critical approach, but our Chinese students were also trained to think in a critical manner as a number of co-advised doctoral dissertations demonstrate. However, since the advent of the network of Confucius institutes around the globe, it has become clear that the openness of the Chinese to humanistic dialogue has not only changed but has gone into reverse, with the Chinese authorities offering financial packages to international students to engage in doctoral work on Chinese studies in China and under sole Chinese supervision.

Unfortunately, colleagues who in the past were open about their hopes for academic liberalization have now become mute, or even aggressively pro-nationalist - at least that is their official face. At times, it feels like being back in the 1970s when Chinese students abroad only uttered the official line, when they spoke at all. In my lectures on recent Chinese history, including the events at Tiananmen, it has become frequent to have twenty-year old Chinese students spending a year in France contest my words with an official Chinese version of history. Other Chinese students in class do not dare to protest for fear of being reported to the Consulate, which now issues a certificate of good conduct to Chinese students studying in Lyon upon completion of their studies.

It seems that this battle for minds is being lost even beyond the university. The French government during President Xi’s visit to France in March 2014, wittingly or otherwise, colluded in the peddling of an official version of Chinese history concerning the former ‘supreme leader’ Deng Xiaoping’s activities in France in the 1920s. Deng Xiaoping is no saint and no hero.  Let us recall that Deng not only engineered China’s controlled capitalist turn, but also planned and authorized the bloody suppression of dissenters in 1989. In hindsight, it hardly needs to be pointed out that China’s capitalist road has not led to greater democracy, quite the contrary.

But now, despite lip service to ‘human rights,’ in this fiftieth anniversary year of PRC-French diplomatic relations, France has pursued what can only be termed a policy of appeasement in regard to China. During President Xi’s visit to France, both Paris and Lyon were witness to an almost total lockdown of traffic and circulation while the Chinese delegation was in town and no courtesy was denied. In the city in which I live and work, the connections with China go back centuries, to the time when Lyon was a major manufacturer of silk goods. The twentieth century saw the establishment of the Sino-French Institute (1921-1946) which housed Chinese students studying in the city’s university. It is this institute that was strictly apolitical and disallowed political activities, that the Chinese authorities would now like to recuperate. Even more important to them seem to be the Institute’s archives, including the student files of hundreds of students who returned to China to become important figures. Those who control historical documents control history, which is why in China international scholars more often than not find themselves stymied when trying to consult the country’s ‘public’ archives.

Last year, after a year’s haggling with the Beijing headquarters of the Confucius Institute network, my university decided to close down its Confucius Institute. Interference in the running of the Institute, disapproval of our programme of public lectures and events, and demands that we allow Beijing-appointed teachers access to our degree and research students left the university with no option but to cease operations. The director of the Confucius network in Beijing, Madame Xu Lin, who had brought about this situation through her intransigeance, then went on to cause a scandal at this year’s bi-annual European sinology congress held in Portugal. She demanded and obtained the removal of a page of the congress’s programme because it referred to the Taiwan research funding agency, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation. This international imbroglio has now become known as the Braga Incident after the name of the Portuguese university town where the European Association for Chinese Studies congress took place.

In September 2014 there took place a follow-up visit to President Xi Jinping’s. A delegation of 14 Chinese ministers was led by China’s only woman Vice-Premier, Madame Liu Yandong. As did President Xi, the delegation visited the headquarters of the pharmaceutical and agrochemical company Mérieux. Madame Liu, Vice-Premier in charge of education and cultural diplomacy and thus Madame Xu Lin’s ultimate superior, also visited the now hallowed Sino-French Institute during which visit she was accompanied by the Mayor of Lyon. This time there was not even a fleeting mention of human rights. During her visit rumors circulated that China was willing to part with 10 million euros to acquire the premises and to re-open the institute as a dormitory for the offspring of the Party elite. An official Chinese ‘educational’ presence in Lyon would doubtless compensate for the ‘loss’ of the Confucius Institute.

Having visited Lyon, on 19th September 2014 Madame Liu stopped off on her way to Paris in the town of Montargis to name a square after Deng Xiaoping who had worked in the 1920s alongside other Chinese in the American Hutchinon’s rubber factory in the nearby commune of Chalette-sur-Loing. There seems to be something akin to a virus in French governmental local and national circles, as among some China-watching commentators and pundits, which manifests itself as a desire to render hommage to Deng Xiaoping and to be seen as ‘friend’ of the current Chinese leadership.

On the very day that Madame Liu inaugurated the Place Deng Xiaoping in Montargis, in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi, Ilham Tohti was being tried on charges of separatism. US and EU officials were denied access to the proceedings. On 23rd September the sentence was announced: life imprisonment. The same day the European Union issued a communique condemning the sentence. On 24th September, the United Kingdom, frequently referred to in France as ‘perfidious Albion’ for its lack of steadfastness in international affairs, issued its own communique calling for ‘the release of Professor Tohti, of his students, and for all those detained for what appears to be the simple exercise of their constitutional right to freedom of expression, in line with China’s international human rights commitments.’ A pronouncement from the government of the country which prides itself on being the ‘patrie des droits de l’homme’  is still awaited.

What the Chinese authorities hope to achieve from its hardline anti-Uighur and anti-Muslim policies (recently men have even been banned from sporting beards while women have been barred from wearing scarves) is far from clear. One suggestion is that Beijing wishes to provoke Uighurs into extremism so as better to justify its own version of the ‘war on terror’ and secure its perpetual control of Xinjiang’s ressources.

Whatever the Chinese government’s motives, what does France possibly hope to gain from such a servile relationship with China? While there is a handful private companies who make large profits from the relationship, notably in pharmaceuticals, and the nuclear industry, France still runs a huge trade deficit with China with imports far outreaching exports and middle-sized companies failing to make inroads at all. French businesses may still dream as in the nineteenth century of the huge market that China represents, but recent history has shown that France has been unsuccessful in making advances into this market apart from the fragile and fickle trade in red wine. Yet, Germany, which takes a much tougher line on Tibet and human rights, has become China’s leading EU trade partner and always seems to carry off the large engineering contracts.

France’s strategy is extremely short-term and shortsighted. In terms of long-term image and long-term good, France would do better to maintain and enhance its reputation as a guardian of human rights and champion of imaginative thinking in the humanities and social sciences. At least in so doing France would maintain the respect of China’s intellectual classes. Sadly, at the present time Marianne risks coming to be perceived as just as perfidious as old Albion, and the inauguration of an Ilham Tohti Square more likely in the UK than  in France.


Gregory B. Lee, FHKAH

Professor of Chinese and Transcultural Studies,
Former First Vice-President,
Jean Moulin University - Lyon

Former Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences,
City University of Hong Kong

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