Chinese Foreign Minister Wang welcomed in France by President Macron himself. Paris (unlike Rome) opts for a soft approach: no formal references to Hong Kong. So far only voices from the Elysée (no press conference or official statements, you never know). No formal mention even of the 5G issue on which French intelligence suggests great caution…

An imperial welcome. The fourth stage in Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s European tour is set in Paris. Xi Jinping‘s head of diplomacy is greeted on his arrival at the Elysée by President Emmanuel Macron himself. Not at the Quai D’Orsay as ordinary protocol would dictate. And it is not the first time. Since 2017, Wang has visited the French capital four times and on every occasion he has been met by Monsieur le Président. In Rome, the first leg of his tour, the senior Beijing official had a face to face with Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, but only a phone call with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (and there are some rumours of a pit stop at the Vatican).

THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN ROME AND PARIS

Italy, after the bombastic commitments made last year on the Belt and Road Initiative, appears to have chosen a path of greater attention. At Villa Madama, Foreign Minister Di Maio cited Hong Kong and reiterated the difference between the economic partnership with China and the strategic alliance with the US and NATO.

Not to forget about the positioning of the Democratic Party which, on the eve of the bilateral meeting, reiterated its reservations on Beijing’s 5G. Where everyone expected Xi Jinping’s envoy to be greeted with red carpets in our country, we must admit things went in a different direction. And the proof lies in the scene from the Elysée.

Macron received Wang and allowed him not to hold a press conference (always an embarrassment for those not accustomed to a free press).

While, as expected, there was no mention of 5G, more surprisingly there has not even been an official reference to Hong Kong. Nor has France’s membership to NATO been reiterated. The same NATO Macron described as “brain dead” only a few months ago.

In the end, to save face on human rights issues, the Elysée staff dictated a note to Reuters in which they claim the French President took a “strong” stance on Hong Kong and the scandal of the detention and “re-education” programmes for the Uyghur minority. Obviously, there are no public statements or records of this in the Chinese media accounts of the meeting.

MAIN ISSUES

Discussions between Wang Yi, Macron and his diplomatic advisor, Emmanuel Bonne, must have revolved around several issues. A new bilateral cooperation in the development of a vaccine “to prevent future pandemics”, according to Chinese state agency Xinhua. The renewal of a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, as well as the search for a closer collaboration in the field of “public health, climate change, biodiversity”. But above all a new bilateral commitment on issues “concerning Africa”, starting from the implementation of the “Initiative for the suspension of debt within the G20 framework”. A mutual recognition of the spheres of influence of both France and China in North and Central-Eastern Africa respectively. And a sign of warning for Italy.

DAMAGE CONTROL

A part of the international press has defined Wang’s trip to the Old Continent as an exercise in “damage control”. In the Cold War between China and the United States on European soil, the contenders count their pieces and test their loyalty. The continuous calls to “defend multilateralism” against (Trump’s) unilateralism launched by the Chinese press sound like a challenge – via Brussels – to Washington.

5G, WILL FRANCE BAN HUAWEI?

But at the top of the agenda without a doubt the match for 5G. The United States is asking its allies to join the “Clean networks” plan, a road map to exclude the Chinese from ultra-broadband development. So far, only few have responded positively to this appeal. Macron partially broke his silence during the face-to-face with Wang.

Paris will not ban Chinese companies. But it will work tirelessly to find an alternative Made in EU. “It is normal we want a European solution, due to the importance of the security of our communications”, Macron told reporters on the sidelines of the meeting. To Wang he reiterated a whispered confidence to Xi: on the 5G network, “you would do exactly as me”.

A straight ban is not on the agenda, as Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, coordinator of the French intelligence services, had already told Formiche.net last February. This was confirmed by ANNSI (internal services agency) in recent weeks. Behind the scenes however – just like at Italy’s Palazzo Chigi – the Elysée technicians are working to put Chinese suppliers in a tight spot. The government has effectively closed the curtain on Huawei in the public administration. French operators can sign contracts with the Shenzen giant, but only for a duration of eight years. In short, the cost of working with Chinese companies has increased significantly.

HONG KONG CALLING

Human rights chapter: deafening silence. Supposedly on the agenda for the bilateral meeting between Macron and Wang, but there is no mention whatsoever in the French press. The government shies away from talking about Hong Kong, the former British colony suffocated by the new Chinese National Security Law. One of the leaders of the democratic protest movement and founder of Demosisto, Nathan Law, sent a letter to the President (who, according to sources within his entourage, has read it), asking him to raise the issue with Wang.

Law had done the same in Rome with Di Maio, who used harsh words during the press conference about the need to respect fundamental freedoms in the “fragrant harbour”. A front of activists has “chased” Wang along his European tour. In the Italian capital, a sit-in in front of the Farnesina with a Parliamentary delegation and representatives of the Global Committee for the Rule of Law “Marco Pannella”. In The Netherlands, a delegation of Uyghurs (the Muslim minority persecuted in Xinjiang). The same in Norway, where a reported provoked Wang, asking him what he thought of a possible Nobel Peace Prize for the democratic opponents in Hong Kong.

SENATOR GATTOLIN OF EN MARCHE (AND A FRIEND OF MACRON)

“I am sure the President talked about Hong Kong with Wang. Hollande was very loud on human rights, but when he met with Xi he didn’t say a word. Macron has always done so,” says André Gattolin, Senator of En Marche, French Co-Chair of IPAC (Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China), and very close to the President.

“France may not be a frontrunner in the battle for human rights, but in its relations with China something is changing”, ha continues. “We have not banned Huawei, but it is a de-facto exclusion. Macron has already made clear statements on the Hong Kong events. And calls to order from the Elysée and Quai D’Orsay towards Chinese diplomats have multiplied.” In this sense, Wang’s visit to Paris is truly “reparative”, the Senator explains.

PARIS AND THE “WOLF WARRIORS”

There, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the “wolf warriors'” bites were felt more than anywhere else. The term is how Chinese diplomats have been defined in Europe during the pandemic, as they significantly raised the tones in (not only) rhetorical clashes. Last April, social media posts denying the virus’ origin and allusions to a possible “Western” hand behind the pandemic posted on the Embassy’s social networks earned Ambassador Lu Shaye a summons from French Foreign Minister Le Drian.

Now tones have changed, says Gattolin. “I myself, after denouncing the treatment reserved to Taiwan by the WHO, have been accused by the Chinese Embassy of racism towards its Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus. Today, these constant attacks on Members of Parliament have stopped, and Wang’s visit is clearly an attempt to repair the damage.”

The French leg of the tour has not been concluded yet. After a meeting with Le Drian, Wang plans a face-to-face with former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a friend and long-standing interlocutor of China’s Communist Party. The European tour will end in Berlin, where Wang will meet the head of diplomacy Heiko Maas. Angela Merkel, unforeseen circumstances aside, will be engaged elsewhere.

 

Translation by Laura Harth

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