A subtle change in Merkel’s tone on China


On the surface, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s seventh visit to China was business as usual. The usual deals were made – for example, Volkswagen and its state-owned Chinese partner FAW agreed to build two new assembly plants in the east coast cities of Tianjin and Qingdao. Accompanied by the usual delegation of business leaders, Merkel went to Chengdu, the capital of the south-western province of Sichuan, and visited an existing Volkswagen production plant there. The Chinese government has been promoting Chengdu as a major hub for investment and a leader in urbanisation. German companies such as Volkswagen seem to think they can cash in and repeat inland the success they have had on the coast.

In fact, German business seems to be getting even more demanding. In a draft document leaked during the trip, the Chinese-German Economic Advisory Committee (DCBWA), an organisation that lobbies on behalf of German and Chinese companies, called on the German government to convince the German public to be more positive about China. It stated: “It is up to the governments and business of both countries to jointly promote a good image of Chinese enterprises in Germany.” It even recommended using taxpayers’ money to develop Chinese enterprises in Germany through the creation of an incubator. The German government had apparently not been previously informed about these ideas and has not yet commented.

However, beneath the surface, there are some signs that, rather than giving German business what it wants, Merkel is actually getting tougher on China. At a joint press conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, Merkel was asked to comment on recent revelations about an alleged American spy within the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the German foreign intelligence service. By making it clear that she took the case very seriously, she implicitly criticised the United States in front of her Chinese hosts. But, interestingly, she then threw the topic of spying right back at her Chinese counterpart. Just before Merkel left for China, the president of Germany’s constitutional watchdog had warned that some firms in Europe’s biggest economy are facing a growing threat from industrial espionage by Chinese government agencies with huge resources. In her statement at the press conference, after dealing with the allegations about the US, Merkel emphasised that the German government was also opposed to industrial espionage. Naturally, Li did not comment on this remark – it did not fit in with the anti-American tone for which he had hoped.

Recent developments in the East and South China Seas seem to have led to a subtle change in German government policy on territorial disputes in East Asia as well. Until very recently, the German government had simply appealed to China to find peaceful resolutions to its conflicts with its neighbours. It seemed to want above all to avoid allowing politics to get in the way of business. But shortly before Merkel’s visit to China, a German government spokeswoman said in a press conference that Germany welcomed Japan’s re-interpretation of the pacifist clause of its constitution, Article 9, in order to give Japan the right to “collective self-defence” – something that Beijing has adamantly opposed. It is the first time that the German government has involved itself in the specifics of the China-Japan spat in this way. In his joint press conference with Merkel, Li unsurprisingly pointed out that Japan had launched a war of aggression against China 77 years ago to the day.  

Thus, although business will continue to be central to relations between China and Germany, the chancellor seems increasingly willing to point out major differences in opinion between the two countries. Industrial espionage and worrying developments in Chinese foreign policy are cases in point. Most of all, however, Merkel will speak her mind on the question of political freedom. In her speech at Tsinghua University the chancellor did not mince words when she described what it had meant for her as someone raised in East Germany to finally experience political freedom. “Twenty-five years ago, at the time of the peaceful revolution in the GDR, I was lucky enough to experience the way that freedom and the free expression of opinion was suddenly possible.” The meaning of this for China cannot have been lost on the students listening to her: it is 25 years since Tiananmen Square as well as since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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