Written by Andreas Fulda and Horst Fabian.

Though the EU and China have signed a Strategic Partnership agreement foreign policy analysts qualify its results as “rather disappointing” and point “to the rising disputes within a context of a shifting balance of power”[1]. Some of the reasons for the disappointing performance of the rather young Strategic Partnership up to now refer not only to policy cooperation but to broader societal dimensions as well: a low level of trust between the respective political elites as well as between both societies, the “conceptual gaps” of a shared, mutual understanding and partly diverging cultural values due to different historical journeys and positioning in the international system. We are convinced that citizen diplomacy has to make essential contributions to generate intercultural trust and develop a deeper mutual understanding including shared but differentiated narratives of global and bilateral issues.

This constructive and indispensable role of citizen diplomacy often is poorly understood on both sides. In general European engagement with ‘official China’ comes at the expense of a broader and more comprehensive relationship with Chinese society. While European politicians and government officials engage their Chinese counterparts in diplomatic encounters on a daily basis, their ability to similarly engage in critical and constructive conversations with members of what can be termed ‘unofficial China’ is much more circumscribed.

A case in point is the most recent visit to China by German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. A scheduled meeting with Chinese civil society representatives at the German embassy in Beijing did not take place. Among the invitees was human rights lawyer Mo Shaoping. Mo, who had defended nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo in 2009, was prevented by members of China’s security apparatus from meeting the German minister.[2]

Under the conditions of ‘fragmented authoritarianism’[3], however, not all meetings between European visitors to China and Chinese citizens are subject to censorship. Just a week before the scheduled meeting with Gabriel, Mo had discussed China’s lack of progress on the rule of law and human rights with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. According to Mo “the Germans wanted to hear something other than the official statements”.[4]

Candid conversations between high profile European politicians and Chinese citizens provide European decision makers with first hand information about developments within China. While such facilitated encounters only occasionally take place, they mirror the many uncounted and untold conversations which take place daily between concerned Chinese and European citizens, both within China and in Europe. Such conversations have the potential to reshape the EU-China relationship in significant ways, supporting substantially the declared goals of cooperation towards sustainable development and transitional governance. According to Nye, citizen diplomacy can be understood to mean “networked communications among civil societies [which] take advantage of two-way communications and peer-to-peer relations to overcome cultural differences”[5]. Outside the limelight of media reporting European and Chinese citizens co-create narratives about common challenges and possible solutions. Why and how can citizen diplomacy contribute to an EU – China Strategic Partnership? And how can the EU and its member states facilitate civil society cooperations?

Relieved from the burden of constant official scrutiny and censorship, decentralized, horizontal and intercultural encounters between European and Chinese citizens allow both sides to engage in an open-ended two-way dialogue. Such dialogues help weaving together the strands of European and Chinese society in the fields of arts and culture, media and academia, and the various professions on issues of economic, social, environmental sustainable development. As such, citizen diplomacy should be considered the bedrock of a sustainable EU-China relationship.

Citizen diplomacy provides a complementary problem-solving strategy and underpins the role that non-state actors can play in mitigating difficult interstate relations. When confronted with a lack of shared understandings and values in and between different countries, political and private sector leaders often realize that they can not solve deep-rooted conflicts alone as evident in the field of national and global environmental governance. Confronted with complex problems regarding environmental public goods complex multilevel solutions require the involvement and collaboration of a diversity of public, private and nongovernmental stakeholders. Global climate change, which can only be mitigated at the intersection of European and Chinese government, private sector and civil society, is a visible example.

Communication and cooperation with China for reasons of language and rather different cultural traditions is not easy and the risks of misunderstandings in everyday life and politics and the possible “costs” are high. Many recent misunderstandings and conflicts show the low level of intercultural knowledge and trust between Europe and China. This is even true in fields as solar energy where cooperation between Germany/Europe and China yielded outstanding results, though not without frictions and losers, by facilitating the transition towards an economically viable and competitive photovoltaic sector.[6] This is an excellent illustration of the sociological insight that long-distance cooperation in challenging and sometimes risky endeavors requires a high level of trust in interpersonal civil society trust networks. European state and civil society actors should work together in a division of labour to support the development of such trust networks in strategic fields of cooperation with China. The building of such civil society trust networks which, as sectorial studies show, also facilitate economic exchange and cooperation effectively,[7] can be promoted by supportive European policies: funds and other resources for creating/developing professionally focused communities of practice, but in the first place by creating institutional mechanisms and negotiating spaces and thematic arenas for joint state, civil society and private sector cooperation.

Politicians and bureaucrats in European capitals thus have much to gain to tap into the wealth of information and expertise generated by evolving trans-national networks of European and Chinese citizens. This will require a rethink of current policy making towards China. A first step towards a better understanding of the contributions of citizen diplomacy to EU-China relations would be to commission studies which map impactful and strategic citizen diplomacy initiatives launched by European member states. Such mapping exercises should include existing professional and social networks, as civil society cooperation is embedded in broader economic and professional realities. Furthermore, the European Commission should reevaluate its compartmentalized dialogue architecture towards China. Europe’s China policy dialogue is fragmented between the three pillars of a political, economic and people-to-people dialogue. This segmentation prevents learning across sectoral boundaries and artificially restricts participation of key stakeholders, e.g. civil society actors from Europe and China, which as a rule are excluded from the political and economic dialogue forums. To make use of the high potential of civil society cooperation the EU and China should develop within their Strategic Partnership a standardized institutional procedure to evaluate in the preparation phase of new cooperation programs and projects how civil society actors can be actively involved.

Rather than distinguishing between high and low politics, the European Union thus should mainstream civil society cooperation and participation in all of its dialogues with China. This will require a greater flexibility among European and Chinese government officials to experiment with new forms of public engagement. Initiatives such as the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue on Participatory Public Policy (2011-14), supported by the European Commission and implemented by the University of Nottingham and its consortium partners during the past four years, have shown that it is possible to facilitate critical and constructive public dialogues on issues ranging from climate change, environmental health, labor relations, social entrepreneurship, child welfare, freedom of information, government procurement of CSO services to disability rights.[8]

European private foundations could also be more strategically engaged in their support for Chinese civil society. As an alternative to supporting individuals or selected few civil society organisations (CSOs) they could provide funding for trans-national European-Chinese social and policy networks.[9] Academic institutions in Europe could also continue to play their part in citizen diplomacy by encouraging staff to engage in community-based participatory research[10] and to facilitate their students to take part in field schools in China.[11] Scientific cooperation projects could link with civil society initiatives with the perspective of mutually beneficial growing clout and impact. Many more examples of facilitating and contributing actors and activities could be added. They are part of the developing narrative and practice of EU–China civil society cooperation. This is an open story to be written by a growing number of actors.

About the authors

Andreas Fulda is lecturer at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and senior fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. He is also coordinator of the School’s Centre for Contemporary Chinese Politics (CCCP). As the manager of the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme (2011-14) he is coordinating the work of partner organisations China Association for NGO Cooperation, German Asia Foundation, Global Links Initiative, Great Britain-China Centre, Institute for Civil Society at the Sun Yat-sen University, Leadership Inc, the University of Nottingham, UK, and the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

Horst Fabian has been an academic expert for Cuban development policy and politics before he worked as a GTZ/CIM Program Coordinator for East Asia in German development cooperation for 20 years.  From 2000 – 2012 he developed as part of the CIM program in China a civil society portfolio of 30 CIM experts in total, one of the roots of the EU – China Civil Society Dialogue. After retirement he tries to play the role of one of many Europe – China civil society ambassadors. Besides he is researching and publishing on selected issues of Chinese development (civil society, democratization, social movements, sustainable development transition).


[1] Stephan Keukeleire/Tom Delreux 2014: The Foreign Policy of the European Union,2nd edition, Macmillan 2014, p. 283

[2] SCMP, 23 April 2014, China prevents prominent human rights lawyer Mo Shaoping from meeting German minister, Available online: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1494998/china-prevents-prominent-human-rights-lawyer-mo-shaoping-meeting-german, Accessed 26 April 2014.

[3] New York Times, Political Governance, Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/ref/college/coll-china-politics.html, Accessed 26 April 2014.

[4] Deutsche Welle, 25 April 2014, Rights lawyer: ‘No true rule of law in China’, Available online: http://www.dw.de/rights-lawyer-no-true-rule-of-law-in-china/a-17591909, Accessed 26 April 2014.

[5] New York Times, The Pros and Cons of Citizen Diplomacy, Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/05/opinion/05iht-ednye.html?_r=0, Accessed 26 April 2014.

[6] Rainer Quitzow: The Co-evolution of Policy, Market and Industry in the Photovoltaic Sector, Environmental Policy Research Center, FU Berlin, FFU Report 06-2013, available online: , http://edocs.fu-berlin.de/docs/servlets/MCRFileNodeServlet/FUDOCS_derivate_000000002802/Quitzow_2013_Co-evolution_China_and_Germany_FFU_Report_06-2013

[7] For further information on how civic exchanges promote economic cooperation between European member states and China see Liberal Democratic Voice 2013, Chinese Liberal Democrats publish e-book on twinned cities, Available online: http://www.libdemvoice.org/chinese-liberal-democrats-publish-ebook-on-twinned-cities-37617.html. Accessed 8 May 2014 and Stiftung Asienhaus 2012, Partnerschaften zwischen NRW und China. Die Rolle der Zivilgesellschaft stärken, http://www.asienhaus.de/aktuelles/detail/partnerschaften-zwischen-nrw-und-china-die-rolle-der-zivilgesellschaft-staerken/. Accessed 8 May 2014.

[8] Andreas Fulda 2013a, China Policy Institute Policy Paper 2013: No. 5

The EU-China High Level People-to-People Dialogue: why it is important and how to make it work, Available online: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/cpi/documents/policy-papers/policy-paper-2013-no5-dr-andreas-fulda-eu-china-people-to-people-dialogue.pdf, Accessed 26 April 2014.

[9] Andreas Fulda 2013b, Maneuvering the Third Way. How the West can best engage China’s new generation of reformers, Available online: https://ip-journal.dgap.org/en/ip-journal/topics/maneuvering-third-way, Accessed 26 April 2014.

[10] Horowitz CR, Robinson M, Seifer S 2009. Community-Based Participatory Research From the Margin to the Mainstream: Are Researchers Prepared?, Circulation. 2009; 119:2633-2642, Available online: https://depts.washington.edu/ccph/pdf_files/CBPR-Circulation.pdf, Accessed 26 April 2014.

[11] University of Nottingham, Annual Field School, Available online: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/chinese/prospective/undergraduate/field-school.aspx, Accessed 26 April 2014.