Andreas Fulda, Horst Fabian and Patrick Schroeder 

You can read the first part of this long read here

Creating opportunities for enhanced people-to-people dialogues

If the EU was to willing to and able to forge a dialogue across civilizations based on asynchronous reciprocity this would require Europe to go beyond trust building at the elite level and create opportunities for enhanced dialogues on the people-to-people level, too. For this to happen, major structural reforms would need to be undertaken by the European Union. One example of a lack of imagination on the European side is the so-called EU-China dialogue architecture. Under the three pillars political, economic and sectoral and people-to-people dialogue there are now more than seventy seperate dialogues. These dialogues are so compartmentalised that it is almost impossible to mainstream cross-cutting issues such as governance, civil society, gender, or sustainability. Recent field research conducted by the political scientist Max Taylor at the University of Bath has also shown that despite the Lisbon treaty article 21 EEAS diplomats do not consider norm promotion as part of their remit. Due to the elite-driven nature of EU-China relations, the current dialogue architecture excludes key European and Chinese political and social actors; dialogue formats follow the logic of a ‘banking model of education’, where European and Chinese experts try to convince the other side of their respective wisdom; and the dialogue forums themselves are increasingly narrow, manipulative and mechanistic.

The European Union should make an explicit offer to the Chinese people to forge a comprehensive dialogue across civilizations. In this context both the European and Chinese civilization is understood to be changing, plural and open

An exception to this rule have been the highly respectful intercultural policy dialogues organised by Professor Steve Tsang, Director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Tsang, a British political scientist and historian with cultural roots in Hong Kong has organised very successful closed-door meetings both with the Central Party School at the University of Nottingham in 2014 as well as with a Taiwan research center from Tsinghua University at SOAS in 2018. One key success factor has been Tsang’s selection of European participants who can speak fluent Chinese. Another key feature of these meetings has been Tsang’s egalitarian round-table approach, where European and Chinese participants are seated together in alphabetical order and regardless of their rank. This kind of format has allowed European and Chinese dialogue participants to debate very complex and controversial issues such as political reform in China or relations across the Taiwan straits in a civil and constructive manner. While highly successful in creating a climate for open dialogue and deliberation, such meetings have been admittedly rather small-scale. As such they do not lend themselves to scaling up beyond the realms of highly-trained European China experts. One of the key lessons from Tsang’s policy dialogues is that intercultural encounters between European and Chinese participants need to be facilitated professionally.

A dialogue across civilizations requires professional facilitation 

In order to avoid people-to-people dialogues becoming mere ‘talk shops’ such meetings should be hosted by professional facilitators who are able to employ highly participatory big group moderation techniques such as World Cafe, Open Space, Future Search etc. Good facilitators are more than moderators of dialogues themselves. They can also help host organisations co-design and deliver dialogue forums. By involving facilitators early on in the planning of EU-China dialogues European and Chinese host organisations will find it easier to jointly select topics and dialogue participants. Such a facilitated EU-China cooperation helps to foster a climate of trust and inclusion.

When experimenting with new partnership models the European Union does not have to reinvent the wheel but can draw on good practices. During the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme, a three year dialogue initiative implemented by the University of Nottingham between 2011 and 2014, professional facilitators Mark Pixley and Karen Lim successfully proto-typed the communication and collaboration conference (3C) model. The 3C model “maintained the strengths and comfort of a speaker-led format while providing an interactive and participatory process that is designed to enhance relationships, deepen understanding of the topics, and create actionable projects.

An inclusion of a broad coalition of civil society actors in Europe’s China engagement would be an adequate response to the Chinese government’s top-down, big development model.

The 3C model enabled eight hundred participants from Europe and China to discuss issues ranging from climate change, environmental health, labour relations, child welfare, social entrepreneurship, information disclosure, government procurement of CSO services to disability rights. The eight highly inclusive dialogues involved Chinese civil society practitioners as well as European academics and practitioners from the UK, Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Greece, Estonia, Poland, Romania, and Latvia to engage in constructive discussions with Chinese academics and policy makers from the central, provincial, and municipal levels. This dialogue programme can be seen as a proto-type for the proposed comprehensive dialogue across civilizations.

An inclusion of a broad coalition of civil society actors in Europe’s China engagement would be an adequate response to the Chinese government’s top-down, big development model. Europe has to promote its own democratic, decentralized and rights-based development model, which includes top-down and bottom-up elements. It also needs to reform it in terms of its effectiveness. This is a different situation in comparison to the cold war confrontation: the process of globalization has produced much more reasons for international cooperation. Therefore, it is a complex situation of including both cooperation and competition – a situation which is well known in the field of business and economics. One of Europe’s assets are the lively, dense, active and pluralistic civil societies. By leveraging these assets in the context of a reformed EU-China dialogue architecture Europe would send the message of an inclusive, pluralistic democratic identity, which does not require any ideological democratic drumming.

Why the European Union should include European civil society actors

Without a systematic inclusion of European civil society actors the Chinese government would keep the upper hand, mainly due to structural and institutional reasons on the Chinese side with its elite- and party-state-centered approach. The inclusion of European civil society actors in the reformed EU-China dialogue architecture is also overdue in terms of defending universal values regarding democracy and human rights. As the Chinese government is actively excluding democratic ideas and eroding human rights standards at home and abroad, the answer to this challenge is for the European Union to encourage European civil society actors, including but not only limited to European human rights organisations, to concern themselves with human rights in China. This has nothing to do with regime change by aggressive democracy promotion, as the Chinese government has in fact signed key human rights covenants and as China has a human rights tradition of its own.

In order to ensure the sustainability of the proposed comprehensive dialogue across civilizations the European Union would need to put money where its mouth is. It could do so by establishing a Europe-based People-to-People Dialogue Support Facility (P2PDSF). The P2PDSF could be administered either by a single organisation or a consortium. The implementers of the P2PDSF would need to provide a transparent set of evaluation criteria for the selection of dialogue proposals. Here the established protocols of EU-China Policy Dialogue Support Facility II (PDSF) could provide a useful reference. As the EU-China High Level People-to-People Dialogue aims to “identify opportunities for cooperation based on mutual interest and reciprocity” [20] the P2PDSF could be given a remit to promote grassroots-level dialogues in fields such as science and technology, artificial intelligence, education, environment, culture, civil society, public sector reform, disability, gender and LGBTQ+, youth etc. Civil society dialogue programmes implemented during the past fifteen years have shown that they are more successful if the topics for discussion are both specific and relevant for the European and Chinese sides.

EU-China ties can be strengthend based on the key principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, reciprocity and sustainability

European decision makers should also consider eligibility when drafting a call. The support facility should allow non-profit making non-governmental organisations, public sector operators and higher education institutions to apply for dialogue funding. In the Chinese context, non-profit making non-governmental organisations should be understood in the broadest possible sense and allow both Government- organised NGOs (GONGOs) as well as grassroots NGOs to apply jointly with their European counterparts to host EU-China dialogues. Such a balanced approach involving both officially- sanctioned GONGOs as well as tacitly tolerated grassroots NGOs would considerably reduce the political sensitivity of such an initiative in the eyes of the Chinese authorities as well as making the dialogues more inclusive.

The P2PDSF has the potential to strengthen EU-China ties based on the key principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, reciprocity and sustainability. These principals were developed during the implementation of the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme and helped foster a climate of constructive communication and collaboration among intercultural groups. Solidarity postulates that societal self-organization in China is an ongoing historical process which deserves attention and active support by European civil societies. Subsidiarity is about European civil society playing a supporting role for Chinese civil society rather than the role of an advocate. Reciprocity emphasizes that cooperation between European and Chinese civil society should be based on burden and benefit sharing. Finally, sustainability is understood as long-term partnerships between European and Chinese civil societies which require appreciation, joint effort, trust and friendship among individuals. In order to be truly sustainable, such bridge building should be supported with the help of European funding (End of Part 2).

Andreas Fulda is research active in the fields of EU-China relations as well as philanthropy and civil society in Greater China. As a consultant he helped design and implement three major capacity building initiatives for Chinese civil society organisations: the Participatory Urban Governance Programme for Migrant Integration (2006-07), the Social Policy Advocacy Coalition for Healthy and Sustainable Communities (2009-11) and the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme on Participatory Public Policy (2011-14). He tweets @AMFChina

Horst Fabian has been an academic expert for Cuban development policy and politics before he worked as a GIZ/CIM programme coordinator for East Asia in German Development cooperation for 20 years. From 2000 to 2012 he developed, as part of the CIM programme in China, a civil society portfolio of 30 CIM experts in total, one of the roots of the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme.

Patrick Schroeder is Research Fellow at The Institute of Development Studies (IDS). His main research interests relate to climate change and the global transition to a circular economy. Prior to joining IDS, Patrick was based in Beijing from 2008-2015. He worked extensively in development cooperation programmes of the European Union, including the SWITCH-Asia Programme and the EU-China Environmental Governance Programme. He also has worked for the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ/CIM) as Senior International Advisor to the China Association for NGO Cooperation where he coordinated the China Civil Climate Actions Network, facilitating climate change cooperation between European, US and Chinese NGOs.

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