FT: On the subject of infrastructure, clearly several countries particularly in Central and Eastern Europe have done a lot of infrastructure projects with Chinese companies. We spoke about 16+1 earlier. One developing theme is that some members in that group are not so happy about either the cost or quality of some Chinese projects that have been done. Poland is in the most obvious example in this. We’ve heard rumors that it may leave the group because of this. Obviously this reflects some of the wider issues that China has with the Belt and Road outside Europe. Is this something that worries you: that there is now a backlash in Europe against the finance and infrastructure projects that China has been doing a lot in the Europe over the past 10 years?
Zhang Ming: Personally I’m optimistic about infrastructure project cooperation between Chinese companies and their global partners, either in the framework of 16+1 or the Belt and Road Initiative. Because I know very well that Chinese companies usually have very good competence in this regard. I don’t know whether you have been to China or not. As far as I know, many foreigners in China are deeply impressed by the infrastructure in China. I still remember that we built the first highway in the middle of the 1980s. After that in a short span of 30 years, we now have a nation-wide network of highways. The construction is very fast and of high quality. We have a railway network of 100,000 km, of which 30,000 km are high-speed railway. The length is No.1 in the world, so is the speed.
I worked in Africa for some years. The good development of China-Africa cooperation is partly about infrastructure. Some African capitals might be just a few hundred kilometers away, but sometimes you have to fly to Paris or London to make transfer and fly back. But with the cooperation between China and Africa, this situation has been greatly improved. That gives a boost to the flow of personnel, information and capital, and that gives a big impetus to Africa’s development.
FT: So why then do you think we hear these complaints from Poland and other countries?
Zhang Ming: I’m not aware of the case you referred to. That might be an individual case, and individual cases do not represent the whole picture.
FT: Let’s turn to security. One of the issues that have been rising onto the agenda is the role of Chinese technology companies, including Huawei, in the EU. There is clearly concern among diplomats in some countries about its security implications, both at the bilateral level and the bloc’s level. We saw the recent arrest in Poland and the call for broader EU actions. Does China think these concerns are fair? Does China worry that these trends will undermine the China-EU relations? And how will China respond to the EU’s concerns on this?
Zhang Ming: First of all, I want to thank you for your interest in Huawei. This is an important issue. As a government official, I would not speak for a specific enterprise. You may have noticed the interview by the founder of Huawei, Mr. Ren Zhengfei. It’s a very good interview, very frank and open. I noticed that the Financial Times covered the interview.
I would rather talk more about the trends as indicated behind the case of Huawei. As we discussed for some times, in today’s world, we are seeing the rising trends of unilateralism and protectionism. That has brought a chill into global economy. Now someone is sparing no effort to fabricate a security story of Huawei. However, as a matter of fact, I do not think that this story has anything to do with security, and the so-called security concerns are not supported by any fact or evidence. Rather I believe that it is an act of protectionism with a political sense. That indicates a pushback against globalization. Such a move is trying to turn a business issue into a political one or even a security one indiscriminately, and that completely violates the principles of free and fair competition.
Unlike the sculpture on this table, which is obviously a Chinese technology, the 5G technology is a product of global open cooperation. It is an outcome of high-tech innovation by the whole international community. It is a good thing for the whole world. The global industrial, supply and value chains are highly intertwined in this area and cannot be artificially and deliberately cut by anyone. Doing so would be very irresponsible, as that may be hurtful to the rules-based global order and multilateral economic and scientific cooperation. Therefore, that merits vigilance of all people.
Cyber-security is a shared concern of all mankind, and is also an important component of cyber-technology. Cyber-security can only be jointly preserved in an open and transparent manner and on the basis of trust. It is not helpful to make slandering, discrimination, pressuring, coercion or speculation against anyone else. China and the EU are comprehensive strategic partners. Both sides act in the spirit of multilateralism and preserve the rules-based global order. Actually the EU in itself is a product of multilateralism. So I believe the EU knows clearly where its own interests lie in this issue. We hope that our EU partner will take a rational and objective approach and abide by the principles of openness, fair play and free competition. We hope that the EU will continue to provide a level-playing field for the economic and scientific cooperation and avoid any exclusionary and discriminatory arrangements. As I said, the EU and China are partners to each other. What we need is globalization instead of tribalization.
FT: If what the EU does is considered as discriminatory by the Chinese side, how will China react?
Zhang Ming: We will make the best of the existing communication channels to talk about this issue. The key point is that we believe that the EU values multilateralism and the rules-based global order.
FT: You see it as a protectionist measure, to protect European companies that are less technologically advanced?
Zhang Ming: It could be a measure to protect from foreign competition. But anyway, I don’t think that protectionism is a good way out. Cooperation is.
FT: Could you be a little bit more specific about where you see the trends going and what actions would really concern you in this area? What steps would you see as discriminatory?
Zhang Ming: We do not want to see the principles of market economy and the multilateral system being undermined, which will have an impact on not only China, but also the EU, the US, Asia, Africa and everyone in the world.
FT: Can you see any justification in some of the security concerns that the Europeans have raised? Are there arguments that they made that are sound, or do you think any controls in these areas are unjustified?
Zhang Ming: As I said earlier, issues like cyber-security is a shared concern for everyone in the world, not only specifically to Europeans, but also to Chinese, Asians, Africans and all people around the world. But to resolve the concerns, we need to act in an open, cooperative, trustful and transparent way rather than through discriminatory actions or groundless accusations.
FT: On a wider question of security, a group linked to the PLA is allegedly behind a recently disclosed hack of EU diplomatic data. Don’t incidents like this undermine the trust that you are trying to build with the EU?
Zhang Ming: What you mentioned is a good example of the fabricated stories of security. As our great friend said: fake news.
FT: It’s fake in what sense? You are saying that they are not linked to the PLA?
Zhang Ming: It’s simply a story. They are making such stories just as a political maneuver. There’s not any proof or evidence.
FT: European elections are coming up. There are a lot of focuses in Europe and concerns about rising populist parties that want more disintegration. Is that a concern of China? Is that political trend working in China’s interest?
Zhang Ming: China is of course closely following what is happening in Europe. But after all, the developments here are internal affairs of Europe, China respects the European way of dealing with the issue and we will not interfere. We hope to see peace and development in Europe and see European people living a good life.
FT: But clearly more protectionism in European politics is something that China would want to avoid.
Zhang Ming: Indeed protectionism and unilateralism are rising around the world and even going rampant in some parts of the world. Both China and the EU are important forces for resisting protectionism and unilateralism. We both believe in multilateralism and the rule-based global order. We will step up cooperation in this regard.
FT: That leads neatly into the question which I have about the Iran nuclear deal. There are attempts going on to keep it alive among China, Russia and European signatories. How close your contacts have been with the Europeans on this? What do you think of the efforts? Would you see Chinese companies or even Chinese government organizations joining the special purpose vehicle which the Europeans say they will launch soon?
Zhang Ming: For years China and the EU have maintained close cooperation regarding the JCPOA. The agreement is an important outcome of multilateral diplomacy. It is a good example of settling regional hotspot issues and preserving regional peace through political and diplomatic means. We commend the important role of the EU in this regard. This agreement was endorsed by the UN Security Council. It should be implemented in a thorough and earnest way. It helps preserve the global non-proliferation regime and the Middle East peace. And it is in the interest of the international community.
After the withdrawal of the United States and the resumption of unilateral sanctions on Iran, the remaining signatories including China and the EU still act in a responsible manner to deliver on the JCPOA and maintain normal business ties with Iran. I know that the EU has made a great deal of efforts in this connection. That includes the SPV that you just mentioned. China applauds the efforts made by the EU and we hope to continue to work with the EU to fulfill due responsibilities and obligations to keep the JCPOA alive. As for the SPV, I believe Chinese companies will be interested.
FT: I know you have a great deal of Middle East experience. Are you worried at all that the JCPOA could be threatened by the rising skepticism in many European countries about Iran’s behavior in other fields? There is a rising anger about what European alleged to be assassination plots orchestrated by Iran and long-standing grievances over Iran’s missile programs and role in regional conflicts. Are you concerned that this might gradually unravel the JCPOA?
Zhang Ming: For years we have seen many hotspot issues in the Middle East. It is fair to say that without a peaceful Middle East, there would not be a stable world. That is exactly why China and the EU have the shared commitment to the peace process in the Middle East. That explains why we made great efforts to conclude the JCPOA. It is our firm belief that regional hotspot issues could only be properly settled through cooperative, political and diplomatic means. It contributes to regional peace and global stability. This is what China and the EU see eye to eye each other and we will stick to such commitment.
FT: Do you support then the growing EU threat of action on Iran’s behaviour outside of the JCPOA? We’ve already seen sanctions this year over the alleged murder plots in Europe. There may be sanctions on missiles and other things later. Do you think this is the right road to go down on this?
Zhang Ming: The right way to go down is the continued political and diplomatic efforts. It is important to preserve the results of multilateral diplomacy. Only in this way can we have peace and stability.
FT: Does the EU approach achieve that?
Zhang Ming: I am confident that the EU believes in multilateralism and commits to political and diplomatic approaches.
FT: Another point of tension between the EU and China for a long time has been human rights. The EU has criticized what it calls the deteriorating human rights situation in Xinjiang. It says it expects China to respect freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the rights of ethnic minorities. How does China respond to this?
Zhang Ming: The Chinese government is committed to protection and promotion of human rights. I’m proud to say that China is actually doing a good job in protecting human rights. In the past 40 years of reform and opening-up, we have successfully lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty. In the field of human rights, that could be quite a feat. Our efforts contribute to poverty reduction in other developing countries and the broader international community.
It’s not easy for China to deliver education, medical, elderly and housing services to the 1.4 billion Chinese people. Without a strong sense of responsibility to protect and promote human rights, it is impossible to finish such a daunting task.
China is a multi-ethnic country. According to China’s Constitution, all ethnicities are equal. The Chinese government attaches great importance to the development of all ethnicities and regions. We have done a lot of work to help preserve the indigenous languages and cultures of ethnic minorities. Xinjing is just a case in point.
FT: Are you saying the EU criticism is unfair?
Zhang Ming: They either have little knowledge of the actual situation, or try to turn a blind eye to what China has achieved.
FT: There have been more and more reports since that statement was issued in October, alleging very serious abuses in that region. This is something that the EU diplomats must be raising with you more and more. This has emerged as something of great concern in Brussels and among European member states, hasn’t it?
Zhang Ming: There are many media hypes about the situation in Xinjiang. I know that some EU officials have been to Xinjiang recently to see what is happening in the vocational education and training institutions with their own eyes.
Xinjiang is the westernmost province in China, home to many ethnic minorities. As you are aware, in China we still have a development gap between different regions. Especially in some remote regions inhabited by ethnic minorities, there is still a lot of room for improvement. One reason is that some young people have been radicalized. They don’t go to school, they fail to land a job, and they have been seriously affected by extremist ideologies. That could have an impact on China’s stability.
Over the years, there have been several terrorist attacks on the Chinese soil, like what happened in Paris, Brussels and London. So China is also a victim of terrorist attacks. The Chinese government is resolute in fighting terrorism. In addressing terrorism, we address not only the symptoms but also the root causes. We help these young people gain skills and knowledge, find jobs to support their families, so that they will stay clear of the impact of terrorist ideas as quickly as possible.
FT: One final question. We talked a lot about multilateralism and its importance. How surprised are you to hear British politicians making the argument that Britain can leave a multilateral system like the EU, and can prosper and succeed on its own?
Zhang Ming: Wait and see.
FT: It must be unusual to watch this process from here unfold in Britain.
Zhang Ming: Maybe. I have colleagues in London observing this. Anyway, according to Chinese tradition, we don’t encourage any couple to separate. The separation will hurt both. But it’s your internal affair and we cannot interfere. If you insist on separation, ok, make it smoothly, and less influence to yourselves and to the world.
FT: Thank you very much!