French leader seeks China deals, also set to raise 'taboo' issues

President Emmanuel Macron will try to drum up new business deals for French companies during his China visit (AFP Photo/Ludovic MARIN)

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in China on Monday to drum up new business deals, but under warning from his hosts to keep off thorny issues such as the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Macron began his second official trip to China in the financial hub of Shanghai, where he will attend an international import fair against the backdrop of the trade war between Washington and Beijing.

Speaking to French and German businesspeople attending the trade expo, Macron said Europeans must work together to compete economically with China.

The more Europeans work as one, “the more credibility and results we have,” Macron said.

Macron and other foreign leaders attended a gala dinner Monday night hosted by President Xi Jinping on the eve of the second China International Import Expo in Shanghai.

After his visit to Shanghai, he will meet Xi again on Wednesday in Beijing, where the two leaders will hold more talks.

French officials say Macron will not shy away from “taboo” topics including Hong Kong and the mass detention of Muslims in China’s northwest Xinjiang region.

Human Rights Watch called on Macron to publicly press Xi to close “political education” camps in Xinjiang and respect Hong Kongers’ rights to participate in politics.

Zhu Jing, a European affairs official at the Chinese foreign ministry, said Beijing has prepared the “friendliest and warmest welcome” for the French leader.

But Zhu also warned that on human rights, the two countries should have “constructive” dialogue and avoid “mutually criticising each other or politicising the issue”.

“Hong Kong and Xinjiang are matters of China’s internal affairs. It is not relevant to put them on the diplomatic agenda,” Zhu told reporters last week.

Hong Kong has been rocked by months of political unrest, with a new night of violence on Sunday in which a knife-wielding man wounded five people, including a local pro-democracy politician who had his ear bitten off.

Zhu also warned France against playing a “disruptive” role in the Indo-Pacific region, or sending warships into Beijing-claimed territorial waters.

France angered China in April when a French frigate sailed through the Taiwan Strait.

– Business and culture –

Macron’s visit will focus on helping French companies strike new deals with China.

France’s soft power will also be on display, with Macron inaugurating an offshoot of the Centre Pompidou, the Paris modern art museum, in Shanghai’s West Bund cultural corridor.

An advisor to Macron said French companies expected to come away with around 40 contracts in the agriculture, tourism, health and other sectors — in which France is traditionally strong.

Macron said late Monday that the two sides would also sign an agreement on the “protected geographical indication” of European products, including France’s iconic Cognac, Bordeaux wine and Comte cheese — a designation that ties the names of such foods and drinks to a region.

Macron will be Xi’s guest of honour at the import expo in Shanghai on Tuesday, and the two leaders will have a private dinner with their wives that night before they meet again in Beijing.

The two leaders have used previous meetings over the past two years to stress their commitment to multilateralism in the face of US President Donald Trump’s “America First” brand of nationalism.

Sino-Franco dialogue is crucial at a time when “protectionism and unilateralism keep rising”, Zhu said.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the US tariff war is pushing China to seek closer ties with France and other European countries.

But, Cabestan cautioned, “the Europeans would be naive to believe that they can join China against Trump”.

Macron has also voiced concern over China’s massive investments in central and eastern Europe and huge trade surplus with the European Union, warning that European “naivete” towards Beijing is over.


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