Dialogue on human rights in China failed in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics and became inaudible once the games had started. How much of this would, realistically, have been on the agenda at the now-abandoned EU-China summit, which was supposed to be held this week (1 December)?
The stark truth confronted by a dozen non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that met in the European Parliament ahead of the Sakharov Prize ceremony, at which the prize was formally given to the human-rights champion Hu Jia who has been in jail since last December, is that China sees the EU's carrot-and-stick ‘diplomacy' as laughable or insulting.
China does not want democracy, and the West's preaching of human rights or the rule of law is seen as ‘neo-imperialist'.
More disconcerting to NGOs is that oppressed populations are often just as unimpressed by the Western human-rights package. That holds good in Russia as much as in China.
Defending the rights of 10 million Tibetans and as many Uighurs remains a self-evident moral priority.
But understandable pride in China's outstanding economic and sporting achievements has been steered by relentless official propaganda into crudely xenophobic nationalism.
Beijing received wide popular backing for its furious denunciation of the Reporters sans Frontières protests during the Torch Relay through Paris. Similarly, Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, does not hurt his popularity one bit by dismissing foreign NGOs as “jackels” scavenging for funds from foreign embassies.
This ugly, unfair message, also finds a broad echo. Time to give up? No, but it is clear that if we are to be of any use, NGOs have to find people where they are, not where we would like them to be. For hundreds of millions in China, the main concern is not the death penalty (which is still widely used in the US), but the often terrible working conditions, unsafe coalmines, low wages and the risk of homes being arbitrarily confiscated. Before and during the Olympics, such sufferings were occasionally highlighted. Now we hear little or nothing.
Human-rights NGOs' best course is to support those on the ground defending people's rights in the courts, and never hijack, or risk seeming to discount, their victories.
The West's message is often broadcast on the wrong wavelength. Democracy cannot be imposed from outside. Spontaneous shoots of freedom need to be nurtured one by one and allowed to spread.
Our role should not be as noisy secular evangelists for Western values, but the more modest one of helping fellow human beings not living in freedom to pursue their objectives.
Several funders have already understood the potential of this approach, and, away from the media, are focusing on court battles waged by Chinese workers and human rights activists.
Willy Fautré is director of Human Rights International, which is based in Brussels