Decoupling or De-Risking? China’s State Media Sees Little Difference

Decoupling or De-Risking? China’s State Media Sees Little Difference

Sebestyén Hompot2024-04-22

Since early 2023, “de-risking” has become the key concept of the EU’s approach to relations with Beijing. The term has been promoted as an alternative to “decoupling”, which would mean an all-out disengagement from relations with China and which has never been seen as realistic or desirable by the mainstream of EU policymakers. Meanwhile, Chinese state media is mostly unwilling to see any difference between the “de-risking” and “decoupling” narratives, arguing that both are aimed at disengaging from China and containing China’s development. In more recent media sources, some experts are focusing on whether China’s development poses any “risk” to the EU, as well as the risks of “de-risking” itself.

In her March 30, 2023, speech, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, laid out the EU’s new strategy of engagement with China, with “de-risking” playing a prominent role. In essence, it means that the EU should strive to become more competitive and resilient in strategic sectors such as health, IT, and clean tech. It also aims to diversify the EU’s trade relations in the Indo-Pacific region to reduce overt dependency on Chinese-controlled supply chains. Von der Leyen’s speech also took a clear position against any prospect of “decoupling” from China, which can be understood as a move towards full disengagement from relations with Beijing. Such an option is not viable and is not in the EU’s interest, she stated in her speech.

In the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Chinese- and English-language media, the distinction between “decoupling” (Ch. tuogou ) and “de-risking” (qu fengxian 风险) is blurred in general, although some more nuanced explanations of the relationship between the two emerged in recent months. Apart from equalizing “de-risking” with “decoupling”, another common theme has been the argument that the EU’s China policy lacks autonomy from the United States. It is also commonly repeated that the ultimate aim of “de-risking” is to contain China’s rise, a strategic interest pursued by the United States that its allies are being pressured to follow, according to CPP media. The US was also seen as the main culprit behind “over-politicizing” or “pan-politicizing” (泛政治化) relations between the West and China, suggesting that the CCP leadership would, by default, be ready to conduct relations with the EU in a de-politicized, strictly pragmatic, and profit-oriented way. Another line of argumentation focuses on the EU’s internal divergences, implying that the EU will not be able to maintain a coherent approach towards its relations with China. Therefore, according to this argument, “de-risking” will prove to be a failed experiment. In more recent articles, greater focus has been put on criticizing the notion that China poses any risk to the EU as well as on warning that “de-risking” might prove to be a risk in itself.

First reactions: No difference between “de-risking” and “decoupling”

A May 2023 article by CCTV English titled “So-Called ‘De-Risking’ Just Another Term for ‘Decoupling’ Used by Washington, Allies to Contain China” outlined the main points of Beijing’s initial reactions to the EU’s new direction. The article warns us that “A change in words does not mean a difference in action. In essence, de-risking is hardly different from decoupling.” Another English-language article by Global Times, published in June 2023 with the title “EU warned of risk of ‘decoupling’ under [the] guise of ‘de-risking’”, makes it even clearer that from the CCP’s perspective, the two terms are the same. A Chinese-language Xinhua article from July 2023 uses the set expression “jie shi huan hun” 借尸 (which can be translated as to borrow another corpse to return the spirit of a dead person) to characterize the relationship between “decoupling” and “de-risking”, implying that “de-risking” is merely a new guise for an old evil. A July 2023 CGTN article titled “De-risking disguised form of decoupling the West uses to contain China” does not add too much new information in this regard. A (中国网article also published in July 2023 describes “de-risking” versus “decoupling” as only a change in words without any change in the essential goal to suppress China’s development by the West. 

Washington behind everything

While they noted that the “de-risking” discourse originated in Europe, many of the Chinese media articles on “de-risking” focused on Washington’s perceived efforts to rally its allies for its grand strategy of containing China’s development. China is hence continuously victimized, while Washington’s allies, including Europe, are denied any agency of their own. Several articles on the topic display a paternalistic attitude towards Europe, a quest to enlighten Europeans about the constraints imposed on them by US foreign policy objectives. The above-mentioned CCTV English article lectures Washington’s allies that they “might think they will benefit from following America’s foreign policy. But the United States is so self-serving that its allies have become half accomplices and half victims.” CCTV English notes that “Compared to the United States, China has brought the world opportunities, cooperation and stability”, citing China’s status as the top trading country for a number of consecutive years.

The earlier-mentioned Chinese-language Xinhua article is more graphic in its tirades against the US as the main creator of risks and instability in the world and the main promoter of “de-risking” in the West’s relations with China. The article includes a video by a presenter named Deer Wang, lumping together several unrelated charges against the US for starting wars, forcing other countries to adopt its norms and values, and also briefly mentioning the US plot of “de-risking”. Three drawn illustrations in the cartoon also add to the narrative, all of them vilifying the US, victimizing China, and “de-agentifying” the allies of the US. The most expressive of these illustrations depicts an evil “Uncle Sam figure” (a bearded male figure wearing clothes and a hat decorated with the US flag) riding a railcar together with three Caucasian-looking figures labelled as “allies” 盟友 (an arguably clear reference to Europe). “Uncle Sam” is depicted cutting off himself and the “allies” from another railcar carrying a sad-looking panda. With an evil look on his face, “Uncle Sam” utters the phrase “de-risking” 风险, while his “allies” are observing his action with a helpless and frustrated expression on their faces.

It is often argued in these articles that the West, and especially the US, over-politicize relations with China. According to the June 2023 Global Times article, “the ‘de-risking’ push, be it from outside forces or China hawks inside the EU, has a pan-politicization, pan-ideology, and pan-security tendency”. The Xinhua article notes that “de-risking” originally was only used as a term in economics and suggests that its politicization is aimed at moving away from pragmatic exchanges with China to one determined by geopolitical interests. 

The EU will not find a unified approach to “de-risking”

While the US is seen as the principal actor behind the EU’s “de-risking” approach, some of the articles venture into discussing the EU’s internal dynamics. They mostly argue that the EU has significant internal divergences when it comes to China policy, which will make it difficult for Brussels to maintain a unified “de-risking” approach towards Beijing. According to the June 2023 Global Times article, Germany and France, major economies with significant economic interests linked to China, will be at odds with countries such as Lithuania, a small country with little economic ties to China and increasingly soured relations due to Taiwan-related disputes.

According to China-Europe relations expert Yan Shaohua, of Fudan University, in an October 2023 China Daily article, Germany will be the “benchmark” for other countries when defining and implementing the EU’s “de-risking” strategy. Yan also argues that Germany’s decision on whether to ban Huawei from the country’s 5G sector will be the first major test for the country’s approach to “de-risking”. Yan warns Germany that a ban on Huawei would be seen as provocative by most Chinese people and as a sign of Germany’s support for the “US’ tech strategy to contain China”.

“De-risking is the risk itself”

In more recent articles, a somewhat softer tone can be observed in some expert opinions on the relationship between “decoupling” and “de-risking”. In some, it is tacitly accepted that “de-risking” will not necessarily mean an attempt at fully “decoupling” from China. Meanwhile, the question of how “risk” is defined is repeatedly asked, and, at the same time, whether China poses a risk to the EU is called into question.

An August 2023 Xinhua article, which popularizes the phrase that “de-risking is the risk itself”, mostly focuses on criticizing the US as the main source of chaos in the global order. Here, the widely reproduced phrase “small garden and high walls” (小院高), a critical remark on protectionism recently expressed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, appears as a reference to the supposed risks of “de-risking”. 

A September 2023 article in People’s Daily English copy focuses on the EU’s recently announced plans to “de-risk” its reliance on Chinese-produced EV batteries, comparing it to the dependence on Russian fossil fuels. The article, titled “EU’s attempt to ‘derisk’ Chinese batteries ‘biased, not feasible’”, argues that China is an opportunity for Europe, not a risk, and calls into question whether dependence on Russian fossil fuels is comparable to China’s role in the EU’s EV battery sector. An October 2023 article in China Youth Network (中国青年网) reproduces statements that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gave at the 3rd Belt and Road Forum, which underpinned the “de-risking is the risk itself” narrative. Orbán’s insistence on “de-risking” being the real risk, his calls for connectivity and his rejection of “bloc formation” are much in line with Beijing’s general talking points. Thus, they are reproduced in the article to showcase that not all EU leaders bow to supposed pressures coming from Brussels (and Washington) to “de-risk” from China.

EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s October 2023 visit to China is summarized in an article on the Chinese-language website of Global Times (Huanqiuwang 球网). The article focuses on Borrell explaining what “de-risking” will mean, highlighting his remarks on the importance of China as an economic partner of Europe. Borrell’s remarks on there being no plans for the EU to fully break relations with China as well as the interpretation of “de-risking” as a sort of trade “diversification” (多元化) feature prominently. Meanwhile, questions of how “risk” is defined and why “de-risking” is different from “decoupling”, posed by the Renmin University IR scholar Wang Yiwei, also feature in the article.

Following the 24th EU-China Summit on December 7-8, 2023, in Beijing, a number of new publications appeared in Chinese media on the topic. In a December 8 article by The Paper (澎湃新), a news source known for its relatively open reporting, China-Europe relations expert Ding Chun argues that “de-risking” is not the same as “decoupling”, but it should not be “generalized” (泛化). By this, Ding means that it is acceptable for the EU to seek less dependence on China in some sectors, but this attitude should not become a general trend of its China policy. Meanwhile, articles in major state-aligned sources like China Daily and Global Times published during the summit continue to urge the EU to rethink its “de-risking” approach to avoid moving towards de facto “decoupling”.


As can be seen from recent articles published in China on the EU’s “de-risking” approach, Chinese Communist Party-controlled media is highly skeptical about whether “de-risking“ can be differentiated from “decoupling”. Moreover, there is also skepticism of the EU’s willingness and capacity to act as an independent actor, with “de-risking” often being seen as part of the broader US attempts to constrain China’s development. The “de-risking” discourse is regarded as a pragmatic turn to avoid spreading the unrealistic narrative of full “decoupling”, but it is still mostly seen as related to the long-term geopolitical goal of the US to contain China’s development. The question of why China is seen as a “risk” to the EU is regularly posed. Beijing-controlled media has thus been unwilling to present any criticism of China’s own foreign policy actions during recent years. In other words, it avoids discussing the possibility that these actions can be legitimately seen as “risky” by other states. There is no discussion of Beijing’s increasingly assertive stance on territorial disputes, its increasingly centralized and authoritarian leadership, and its autarkic economic policies under Xi Jinping. Instead, the blame is squarely put on Washington and, to a lesser extent, on Brussels when the EU’s “de-risking” approach is discussed.



This article was first published by the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) on 14 December 2023.

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The project “European Hub for Contemporary China (EuroHub4Sino)” has received funding from the European Union's Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under grant agreement number 101131737.

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or European Research Executive Agency (REA). Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.