Western governments should prioritize the interests of their own people, not their political careers: former Italian undersecretary
Published: Jul 10, 2022 04:46 PM
File photo of Urumchi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Photo: VCG

File photo of Urumchi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

During the past decade, the world has increasingly witnessed a trend of "the East is rising, and the West is declining" in the spheres of economy, security and discourse power. Western countries, particularly the US, plagued by internal woes, have sought the old path of passing the buck and instigating turmoil elsewhere to ease their own pressure. China, representative of the emerging countries, is proposing new solutions to global problems. By advocating win-win development, facilitating consultation and reconciliation and proposing a balanced and effective security mechanism, China is striving to build a community with a shared future for mankind.

In the fifth piece of the series, Michele Geraci (Geraci), former Undersecretary of State at the Italian Ministry of Economic Development, refuted Western slanders against China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region with his own experience of visiting the region when talking to Global Times (GT) reporter Yu Jincui. He suggested US and European countries should "never point fingers at others" when it comes to human rights as they also have human rights issues in their own countries. Echoing Chinese President Xi Jinping's call for China and the EU to add stabilizing factors to a turbulent world, Geraci said "We should make European and Chinese become closer to each other."

GT: You have visited Xinjiang many times. Based on your observations, can you tell us about the differences between what you saw in Xinjiang and the region in Western narratives? Why is the Western perception of Xinjiang full of lies and smears?

I've been there a few times and I've talked to both members of the government and to common people. I have traveled around the region accompanied by officials, as it is normal given my role, but a lot more by myself and very freely, taking trains and taxis even close to the border with Pakistan. And I've noticed there is nothing different than other parts of China. The region has good development opportunities, especially in the fields of local food, green energy, wind and solar. It has the same economic and social potential as my home region in Italy, Sicily. Hence my strong interest in fostering closer cooperation.

I tell you the truth, if I hadn't read the news, it would be impossible to feel that there is something different in Xinjiang than the rest of China. My sense is that the accusations of genocide are not true. The punishments on some individuals do not seem to be related to their ethnicity, or religion. Why should they? No one of the more critical analysts that I have spoken to has managed to answer this question satisfactorily. I believe the punishments are because people break the law. We know that the law in China is very strict, especially when general crime and political criticism coincide and some foreigners may not like it. But it has nothing to do with genocide or ad hoc targeting of certain minorities. Why should Uygurs be singled out in this campaign, while other minorities are not?

Xinjiang is a border region and border regions always face problems in many countries around the world. But I want to be clear: I have seen nothing that suggests that there are targeted measures against ethnic or religious group per se. 

Why is the Western perception of Xinjiang so negative? When you have geopolitical frictions between countries, like the US and China have, you always try to pick on problems. It's part of the narrative that some governments need to sell to their domestic audience. You need to do that for electoral reasons to create an external enemy that you want to fight so that the leader can be the hero who defeats the monster. I want to be honest: I am not even 100 percent sure that some Western leaders care really about the livelihoods of Uygurs, just like they don't really care about those of Ukrainians. They are just fracture points in geopolitical games and innocent people are used as pawns.

GT: China and Europe have differences on human rights issues. To what extent will this affect China-EU relations? How do you see the EU following in the US footsteps to point fingers at China over human rights issues?

I think many countries around the world have human rights issues in their own countries, some bigger than others. My answer is never to point fingers at others. I prefer to focus on the problems of my own country as we, too, have human rights problems in the West of a different type: we have freedom of speech, but we also have crime and violence especially toward women that go unpunished for political reasons or because some governments do not put the needed amount of resources into it. Children should have the right to go to school without fears of being shot dead just because the gun industry has strong lobbyists. So before addressing other countries' problems, we need to solve our own. 

We cannot preach what we do not practice. It's fine that the issues are raised and that the West asks China about human rights. But it should be a question, not an answer. It should be used to bring the issues up, not used as accusation. The paradox is that we always say that our juridical system is more advanced than that of China and we are proud of the separation between juridical and legislative systems: well then, let's have a court of justices issue sentences, not random members of parliaments or governments, let alone researchers or journalists. 

GT: China believes that China and the EU should add stabilizing factors to a turbulent global situation. How can China-EU relations maintain its stability to cope with the instability of international situation?

I'm a professor, half politician, and half economist, so I always say, in addition to trade, exchange of people, tourism, academic exchanges between professors, students and scientific corporations will help. We should make European and Chinese become closer to each other. If European companies see that they do benefit from the relationship with China, then this will also help China gain a partner in Europe that shares the view that cooperation is beneficial to both. The geopolitical problems come because people think that it's a zero-sum game - if you win, I lose. We need to create an environment that we both really gain from each other.

One of the main worries that European companies have is reciprocity and equal access to the Chinese market. So, I think one good step that China could do is to send a signal that foreign investors are welcomed in China, that they are treated equally like Chinese companies. China could by lowering barriers send a political sign that it's not unbalanced.

GT: Now, let's talk about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The situation in Ukraine is now the focus of the world. From a non-European perspective, NATO's eastward expansion to Russia's doorstep is the root cause of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. As a European, what do you think of the five times of eastward expansion of NATO?

This is always a dual misunderstanding between Russia and NATO. Russia is afraid that NATO expansion will threaten Russia's national integrity, and it may end being broken up like Yugoslavia. They have a point. And the NATO says that their expansion does not pose a threat to Russia, because NATO is a defensive organization. They also have a point. I give you a balanced view. The main problem is that for 10 years, Russia and the West have not really held an open and clear dialogue to understand each other. Why is one side doing certain things and why the other side is doing other things? The lack of mutual understanding is the root cause.

GT: Responding to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the US and the EU have slapped sanctions on Russia. Are sanctions a useful tool? What have sanctions brought about to Europe? 

Economic sanctions in general do not work. They did not work in Cuba. It is very difficult for economic sanctions to make an impact toward their goals. In this case, the goal is peace in Ukraine. The EU is making several mistakes because they are imposing sanctions without doing the proper analyses before. I've never seen any impact analysis of the sanctions on Russia and on EU done by the European Commission. I've seen analysis done by other people, but done after the EU imposed sanctions, which is not an input into the decision-making process.

This is a big mistake of method. I teach my students that we first need to do the analysis, then we value the impact on our own economies and on Russia, then we balance, wait, and decide if we think they are instrumental toward achieving peace. Instead, the EU did the opposite. This is not the right way, because it does not help stop war, but in fact the opposite.

Gas and Oil prices have gone up because of the war, but also because of the sanctions of the EU and therefore, since we keep on buying same quantities of oil and gas, Russia's current account balance is much stronger than last year.  Russia's current account surplus more than tripled in the first four months of the year to $95.8 billion, the central bank said. My team and I at both Nottingham University Ningbo and New York University Shanghai, have done the analysis and our conclusions are that these six packages of sanctions are hurting only the European economy and are neutral, to even positive, for the Russian economy. 

GT: Many developing countries, such as India, expressed different positions from that of the US and Europe regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict. What are the implications? 

Perhaps they share my view that without analysis they cannot make the decision to join, because they themselves don't know if the impact will be good or bad. Take India. Modi has to look after 1.2 billion people in India. The interests of many leaders around the world are to look after their own people. So, they would join one or other sanctions only if they see this is good for them. But no one, including the EU, has shown them the analysis, because there is no analysis. The EU and the US simply "demanded" that those countries join in sanctioning Russia, without being clear on what basis.

In fact, there is another aspect that we need to consider. If a country remains neutral, it can actually play a negotiating role. Staying away from sanctions, like China, India and the remaining 86 percent of the world population is doing, could give those countries the opportunity to perhaps be a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. On the other hand, if you put sanctions and take sides like the EU and certain European governments did, you are out of the negotiating process. This indicates that the actions of certain governments are not really aimed at finding a path to peace, but only to "be seen" to be doing something, only for electoral purposes. A very cynical attitude.

GT: If Europe wants to achieve lasting peace and stability with Russia, what kind of security mechanism does it need?

It's a little bit outside my area. As an economist, I always make a quote that is very famous. If goods cross borders, armies won't. So, I think one of the best ways to work for the security is to have people trade with each other. That's why I mean in any security arrangement we need to trade.

I think Russia should go back into the G8 and maybe even China. We need to enlarge the G7 to allow Russia to be in the table so that we can hear what the Russians say every day. And Russia can hear what the Europeans say every day, not just once every year at the G20. I have been at a few G20 meetings, they are nice to meet other leaders, but they are not the best place to discuss things.

So, we need to bring Russia into the group of G7 countries, trade more not less, because trade is a way to understand each other. We need more exchange of people, more cooperation between universities and students. Surely, we need to lift the ban that the EU has imposed on Russian media. Today, European citizens have no access to Russian media. Basically, we are ignorant about Russia. We need to fill this gap because ignorance creates problems. This is where I see the medium-term solution after the war is over. We cannot forget the geography. Russia is in Europe for a large part of the population and GDP. So, we need to find a way to work with it. 

We must care about peace. In order to achieve peace, sometimes you need to swallow some bitter bites. So even if it means to negotiate with Russia, even if it means to swallow something, and take some losses, I think this is worth doing if it means saving lives. The world is not perfect and we make compromises in our lives, every day, with our bosses, our friends and our families.

GT: How do you view the US role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict? 

Europe has always relied on the US as a military ally and we continue to do so. The European army is not comparable to that of the US so we cannot have an independent army without the help of the Americans. So, we will always rely on them. Even the efforts to create a European army are marginal compared to the power of the US military.

Many European citizens have already believed that this war is a threat to the European Union. Many people think it's not a war between Russia and Ukraine, but a proxy war between the US and Russia, using Ukraine as a sacrificial pawn. Smart countries like the US do not fight wars on their territory, but shift the battlefield far away, even if, we must recognize, it is also their young soldiers who pay the price for the choices of their government. As always.