Europe Loses Its Chinese Cheerleader

By Brown, Kerry | The World Today, October/November 2012 | Go to article overview

Europe Loses Its Chinese Cheerleader


Brown, Kerry, The World Today


Kerry Brown rues the pending departure of Premier Wen Jiabao

Wen Jiabao's term as Premier of China will, most commentators presume, come to an end over the next six months as he loses his party and government positions. Over the past decade he has been an authentic reformist voice in the leadership headed by President Hu Jintao. He has been alone in shouting from the rooftops about the need to entrench the rule of law to create a predictable business and trade environment in China. Nowhere will his departure be more keenly felt than in Europe.

Wen's economic portfolio since coming to power in 2003 has included stewardship of the relationship with the European Union. At that time, China had only just entered the World Trade Organization and was ranked sixth in the world economy. By 2012, its economy had quadrupled in size and risen to second position.

In 2002, the EU with its 17 member states was a dominant economic power. A decade later, expanded to 27 member states, the EU remains collectively the largest economy in the world. Stuck in a eurozone debt crisis since 2009, it has amazed and frustrated China with its inability to break free of its economic problems.

Wen has been one of the great cheerleaders for Europe. In October 2011, he expressed great faith in its leaders having the wisdom and skill to sort things out. Almost a year later, attending his final EUChina summit as premier, he must have been wondering whether he spoke too soon.

There was a strong feeling of an era passing as Wen was fêted in Brussels on September 20. 'Your role has been essential in bringing us to where we are today,' said Herman van Rompuy, the President of the European Council. The Chinese premier, however, did not stick to diplomatic niceties, saying it was a matter of 'deep regret' that the EU had not lifted its arms embargo dating from the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

The EU and China are indispensable partners, and have huge common interests. They have signed deals this year on innovation, education and technology. They are the world's biggest trading partners, and their links are growing deeper.

But few walk the planet more qualified than Wen to say that dealing with a patchily integrating EU is not an easy task. And the leadership in Europe might all agree that dealing with China in a consistent way is still a distant goal.

The EU's famed proclivity for disunity has been on show over a trade dispute, a claim by 25 European companies that China is exporting solar panels below cost and blocking imports from EU manufacturers. Wen has seen the EU trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, threatening China with sanctions at the same time as Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, was visiting Beijing and saying the solar panel dispute should be resolved through dialogue.

Wen's putative successor as premier, Li Keqiang, has expressed only the most benign views about the EU, and it is hard to say how his approach might differ. The concern for all China watchers is how the new leadership will deal with the urgent unfinished business of reform at home.

The leadership under Hu Jintao has presided over great economic results, but done little on internal reform. Taxes have been lifted on farmers and a start made on building social welfare to attack deepening inequality; and such structural issues as inefficient decision-making and lack of accountability are being addressed. …

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