Grand Duke Henri on 6 February met with China’s Xi Jinping in Beijing as part of a visit to the Winter Olympics Photo: Xinhua/Ding Lin

Grand Duke Henri on 6 February met with China’s Xi Jinping in Beijing as part of a visit to the Winter Olympics Photo: Xinhua/Ding Lin

Grand Duke Henri over the weekend met with Xi Jinping in Beijing. While the visit was packaged as being tied to the Luxembourg head of state’s membership of the International Olympic Committee, the grand duchy’s silence on China’s human rights and other abuses is deafening, writes Delano’s Cordula Schnuer.

The European Parliament, including Luxembourg’s MEPs, already in July 2021 called on the European Commission, the council and member states “to decline invitations for government representatives and diplomats to attend the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics unless the Chinese government demonstrates a verifiable improvement in the human rights situation in Hong Kong, the Xinjiang Uyghur Region, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and elsewhere in China.”

The explanation that the grand duke is attending the games as a member of the International Olympic Committee wears thin. Surely, he could have Zoomed in to the committee’s meeting in Beijing. After all, he swore in two members of cabinet by video conference at the start of January when he was isolating for coronavirus.

The IOC’s stale record on China doesn’t help his cause. At a pre-games press conference, IOC president Thomas Bach refused to comment on the oppression of the Uyghur population. “The position of the IOC must be, given the political neutrality, that we’re not commenting on political issues.” A bust of Bach was unveiled in Beijing in January.

Dick Pound, the longest-serving member of the IOC in an interview with Deutschlandfunk in December said the committee “has no role to play in bringing about political change,” adding that awarding the games is not a political endorsement. Only it is. By giving them to China a second time, after the 2008 Summer Olympics, the IOC is publicly backing the country while remaining silent on human rights. Back in 1964, it had no problem banning South Africa over its refusal to condemn apartheid.

Kowtowing to Xi

France at the start of January had vowed to coordinate a joint European position but failed. A long list of EU leaders and royals politely declined invitations over travel restrictions and China’s strict covid-19 regime without taking a clear stand. The US, UK, Australia and Canada were among the first to publicly announce a diplomatic boycott of the games. Kosovo, Lithuania and India followed.

And so, Luxembourg’s grand duke in Beijing finds himself in the illustrious company of Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and the strongmen of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The only other EU leader to travel to China was Poland’s Andrzej Duda. Luxembourg last year called for EU funds for Poland to be restricted over rule of law violations. The gloves have come off between EU members states over freedom of expression, the independence of the judiciary and the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community, but they’re treading on eggshells around the Middle Kingdom.

Pictures of Grand Duke Henri arriving in Beijing and meeting with Xi were widely shared by the Chinese propaganda machine and how could they not be read as an endorsement? At best, Luxembourg’s head of state is being instrumentalised by China. At worst, he is kowtowing to Xi.

“Grand Duke Henri expressed Luxembourg's willingness to further deepen cooperation with China to jointly promote world development, and thanked China for helping many countries including Luxembourg combat the pandemic and boost economic recovery,” a by news agency Xinhua reads. “He said Luxembourg is willing to actively participate in the Belt and Road cooperation.”

Foreign minister Jean Asselborn (LSAP) during a press conference on Monday agreed that the talks were political and said he had spoken with Grand Duke Henri “at length” ahead of the meeting initiated by Xi--at once rubbishing the IOC argument as well as insisting the head of state had attended as part of the committee. 

Prime minister Xavier Bettel (DP) last week assured journalists that the grand duke cares about human rights and the environment. But it seems wishful thinking that either of those issues were high on the agenda during Henri’s meeting with Xi.

And this when athletes in no uncertain terms have been told to keep their political opinions to themselves. “Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” the deputy director of international relations for the Beijing organising committee, Yang Shu, said during a press conference in January.

Not attending but no boycott

Bettel last week also said that the government had decided not to attend but did not speak of a boycott. Sports minister Georges Engel (LSAP) previously said he would not attend as he only recently took office, citing his busy schedule.

Seemingly forgotten are the days when two Luxembourg MEPs, Isabel Wiseler-Lima (CSV/EPP) and Charles Goerens (DP/Renew), together with a third Luxembourg official in Brussels were against the European Parliament’s human rights subcommittee and the European Council’s political and security committee.

It’s a deafening silence, which we will see more of this week when the China-Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce celebrates its annual lunar new year celebration.

Hosted on Zoom--and in a likely repeat of last year’s webinar--the event will see economy minister Franz Fayot (LSAP), Chamber of Commerce president Luc Frieden, University of Luxembourg rector Stéphane Pallage and Confucius Institute director Jauffrey Bareille sing China’s praises and laud the relationship between the red dragon and the red lion.

Luxembourg’s Confucius Institute opened its doors in 2018. Just a year later, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) said it would close its Chinese state-backed centre after the director was accused of spying for Beijing. Sweden and Norway closed their Confucius Institutes in 2020. Germany’s education minister Anja Karliczek in October last year said the centres should be reassessed after pressure to stop China-critical events at universities hosting them.

There are no such qualms at the University of Luxembourg. Its centre was opened in partnership with Fudan University, one of China’s best ranked higher education institutions. But Fudan in 2019 also struck freedom of thought from its charter, instead enshrining loyalty to the Communist Party--a decision that sparked little more than a shrug in the grand duchy.

Deep ties

Around 4,000 Chinese nationals were registered as living in Luxembourg at the start of 2021, a sizeable community. It compares to around 4,500 Brits and 2,200 US Americans.

Seven of China’s largest banks access Europe through Luxembourg and the grand duchy outranks even Hong Kong as the largest global domicile of investment funds investing into mainland China. Chinese investment company Legend Holdings owns 90% of the Banque International à Luxembourg.

China’s Henan Civil Aviation Development and Investment Company (HNCA) in 2014 completed a takeover of a 35% stake in airfreight company Cargolux. The freight company agreed a €155m credit line with the Bank of China in September 2018, which the bank said would contribute to building a “Silk Road in the air”.

In March 2019, Bettel signed a Memorandum of Understanding in support of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), hailing it as “a new stage in the development of China-Luxembourg relations.”

Shortly after the MoU was signed, a test freight train left Luxembourg for a 15-day journey to Chengdu, China, crossing Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan. The route forms part of the BRI’s Eurasian land bridge but it hasn’t attracted enough partners to make it viable commercially.

Chinese investors own a 25.5% stake in Luxembourg utilities provider Encevo. Luxembourg in 2018 signed an MoU with China on space cooperation although a National Space Science Center that was destined for the grand duchy has yet to see the light of day.

While China is around 3,600 times Luxembourg’s size, business ties between the two countries are deep and long-standing, dating back at least to 1979, when Grand Duke Jean embarked on an official state visit to China. That same year, Bank of China opened its overseas subsidiary in Luxembourg.

“Anyone with gumption and a sharp mind will take the measure of two things: what’s said and what’s done” (Seamus Heaney, Beowulf). Luxembourg’s tiptoeing around China, the Winter Olympics and human rights is frustratingly lacking in both word and deed. It is also a disappointing start to the country’s

Updated on 7 February at 12.40pm to include remarks by Jean Asselborn made during a press conference held after this editorial was first published.