'Asian-Looking' Minister's Heritage Sparks Racism Debate

Do Germans accept public figures with foreign roots? A politician who asked this question about Vietnamese-born Vice Chancellor Philipp Rösler has critics calling him racist. But his party has come to his defense, saying the problem must be addressed.

A fellow party member has questioned whether Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Philipp Rösler's 'Asian-looking appearance' is accepted by the German public.

A fellow party member has questioned whether Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Philipp Rösler's 'Asian-looking appearance' is accepted by the German public.

As one of the few German politicians who don't "look German," Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Philipp Rösler is frequently confronted with questions about his Vietnamese heritage. This week, a reference to his "Asian-looking appearance" even came from within his own Free Democratic Party (FDP), of all places.

The controversial statement, made by the FDP's state leader and integration minister in Hesse, Jörg-Uwe Hahn, sparked widespread accusations of racism from rival parties that now have both Rösler and his party scrambling to explain.

It was simply a misunderstanding, and not meant to be racist at all, party members insist. But they also say that they have heard racist comments from voters about FDP party leader Rösler, and have called for the problem to be addressed.

"I don't understand the fuss about the much-criticized interview comment by Jörg-Uwe Hahn on Thursday," said a statement released on Friday by Rösler, who was born in Vietnam and adopted by German parents as an infant. Not only have he and Hahn worked together for years, but they are also bound by a "personal friendship," he added. Furthermore, Hahn has been a successful integration minister in Hesse, making him "above any suspicion of racism."

The interview, given to the Frankfurter Neue Presse on Thursday by Hahn, read as follows: "When it comes to Philipp Rösler, I would certainly like to know whether our society has come far enough to accept an Asian-looking vice chancellor any longer." This was interpreted by opposition parties as a racist attack by the member of the FDP, the junior coalition partner party in Angela Merkel's governing center-right coalition.

Hahn rejected such criticism, though. "I wanted to point out that in our society there is a widespread, often subliminal racism," he explained. "One can't remain silent about this societal problem, and must discuss it in order to tackle it instead."

A 'Necessary Debate'

Other FDP members have also come to Hahn's defense. His comment was "admittedly ambiguous," party committee member Wolfgang Kubicki told the daily Passauer Neue Presse. However: "I have known him well for a long time and know that he wouldn't want to make any racist statements," he added.

Lasse Becker, head of the Young Liberals, the FDP's youth branch, also backed Hahn. "The choice of words was obviously ambiguous," he told the paper. "But it is necessary to have this debate." Becker added that he had observed racism in relation to Rösler, hearing comments from potential voters on the campaign trail such as: "I would vote for you, but first the Chinese (guy) has to go."

The general secretary of the FDP in the state of Thuringia, Patrick Kurth, cited similar experiences. "As an FDP member I have often heard open or veiled comments about Rösler," he told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung newspaper. "As it were, we should be proud of our country, where it is possible for a victim of the Vietnam War to make it to the top levels of government."

In response to questions about his familial background, Rösler, who was taken in by nuns as a foundling during the Vietnam War, has said that he is a German and feels no connection to his birthplace. Still, in a country with a largely homogenous society struggling to accept its growing immigrant population, the issue continues to crop up for him.

He's not the only one, though. In recent weeks there has been an impassioned debate about racism in German children's literature after a publisher, Thienemann Verlag, decided to remove outdated terms such as "negro" from a beloved bedtime story, Otfried Preussler's 1957 tale "The Little Witch" ("Die kleine Hexe"). Critics were outraged, accusing the publishing house of excessive political correctness. But proponents, particularly immigrants and their children, said removing old racist terms was long overdue.

kla -- with wire reports


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