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JIANG Shixue: Chinese Proverbs to Explain the China-EU Relations

April 22 , 2022 04:04 PM by JIANG Shixue

Chinese Proverbs to Explain the China-EU Relations

Jiang Shixue

Professor of Shanghai University

In 2003, China and the EU established the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, the highest level of partnerships in international relations. This partnership has contributed to the rapid development of their bilateral relations in the political, economic, and cultural fields. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that China is now the EU’s second largest trade partner and the EU is China’s largest trade partner.

In the past one or two years, however, the bilateral relations between the two sides have met with some zigzags. Why so? From a Chinese perspective, the following five Chinese proverbs might offer some explanations:


According to the Chinese legend, anyone who had been eaten by the tiger becomes a ghost, who would then help the tiger to catch more victims for the monster. In English there are similar expressions such as “acting as the paws of the tiger” and “holding a candle to the devil”.

Due to historic, cultural, and political connections, the EU has maintained close relations with the United States. Indeed, the Transatlantic tie is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world.

Since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, the EU is expected to play a more important role in global affairs by maintaining its own independent foreign stance. However, on many issues, the EU just acts as the paws of the “tiger” or “holds a candle” to the United States.

For instance, although the EU has established the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China, it still followed the United States to impose sanctions against China in March 2021, citing the so-called human rights issues in Xinjiang. Undoubtedly, a lack of independence in foreign policy will be counter-productive to the EU’s international position.

2. 疑人偷斧

According to this proverb, when a man could not find his axe, he started to suspect that his neighbor’s son had stolen it. The more he looked at the boy, the more he believed that the boy was the thief. However, when he found his axe at his own home, the more he looked at the boys, the more unlikely that the boy was the thief.

It is trust, even more than economic interest, that holds human associations together. The same is true for international relations. Regrettably speaking, in recent years, the EU’s mistrust and distrust of China is rising. As a result, its misunderstanding, misperception, and misjudgment about China has cast shadow over its relations with China. The EU needs to remember that trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair.

The EU’s mistrust and distrust about China has had a negative impact upon its cognition about the bilateral ties. Whereas China considers the EU as partners for peace, growth, reform and civilization, the EU sees China as “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance”.

3. 指鹿为马

Literally speaking, this proverb can be translated as “pointing to a deer and saying it is a horse”, meaning that facts can be distorted easily.

Despite remarkable progress of cultural and people-to-people exchanges between China and the EU, Chinaphobia is on the rise in Europe. In recent years, it has been made worse by fake news and disinformation about China.

Based on groundless reports and rumors, the EU accused China of human rights violation in Xinjiang. As a matter of fact, equality, unity, and common prosperity for all ethnic groups are the basic requirements for managing ethnic affairs and handling ethnic relations. Since the end of 2016 there has been no terrorist incident in Xinjiang. Ethnic minority population in Xinjiang increased from 4.45 million in 1953 to 11 million in 2000 and 14.9 million in 2020.

4. 叶公好龙

As the proverb goes, a person called Lord Ye loved dragon so much that he even carved a sculpture of the animal on the stone pillars of his house. However, when the dragon really arrived at this home, his professed love of the animal turned out to be fear.

In 1978 China started to reform and open its door to Europe and other parts of the world. At that time, its economy was totally undeveloped. Therefore, a kind hearted or even a merciful Europe was willing to cooperate with China and also make large amounts if investment in China. However, when China became the second largest economy, the EU started to be skeptical or even fearful of China. That is why the mentality of “China threat” has been wide-spreading in Europe, leaving a negative impact upon the EU’s China policy and the general public’s impression of China.

As a matter of fact, the EU does not need to fear a prosperous China. A prosperous China is in the interests of the EU. Moreover, for the foreseeable future, China will remain a developing country. Moreover, China will respect the status quo of the world order.

5. 比翼齐飞

According to the Chinese legend, there is one kind of bird which has only one eye and one wing. If it wants to fly, it needs to cooperate with another bird.

In today’s world, interdependence between/among nations has become all the more important. The EU or China are global players. Therefore, they need to cooperate with each other in such areas as global economic governance, climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, cyber-security, etc. Only through cooperation can they achieve a win-win outcome.