The World from Berlin German SPD 'Kowtowing to the Chinese'

After a week of criticism from the right for refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama, Germany's center-left SPD is now consumed by inner-party bickering. Commentators say that the SPD's hemming and hawing is a disgrace for Germany.

German Social Democrats are split about how to deal with the Dalai Lama.

German Social Democrats are split about how to deal with the Dalai Lama.

The longer the Dalai Lama stays in Germany, the more intense the high-level row becomes over whether Berlin cabinet members should meet with the Tibetan spiritual leader or not. And on Sunday, the issue threatened to erupt into a battle within the center-left Social Democrats.

According to an article in the Sunday paper Welt am Sonntag, SPD leader Kurt Beck is furious with Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, likewise of the SPD, for her decision to meet with the Dalai Lama on Monday. With Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, also a Social Democrat, having refused to meet with the Tibetan leader, Beck is concerned that Wieczorek-Zeul's decision to do so gives the impression of a split in the party.

"None of us knew that Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul wanted to meet with the Dalai Lama," the paper quotes Beck as saying. By the time he learned of the meeting, "the shit could not be undone," Beck allegedly said.

Steinmeier has long been clear about his decision to stay away from the Dalai Lama. Merkel's meeting with the Tibetan leader last autumn resulted in months of political strife between Germany and China, with Beijing cancelling a number of high level meetings with Berlin politicians. It was only through intense negotiations that Steinmeier was able to smooth relations between the two countries.

According to a recent SPIEGEL report, Steinmeier has also been making inroads in encouraging China to open up talks with the Tibetans following the recent unrest in the Himalayan province. An internal government document circulated by Steinmeier within the SPD clearly outlines the foreign minister's position on Tibet. It stated that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi assured Steinmeier that his government was planning to restart talks with the Dalai Lama. Steinmeier has also been negotiating with Tibetan leaders. "These concrete achievements should now be cautiously expanded and not jeopardized through reckless actions," Steinmeier wrote.

Meanwhile, Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) have been happy to continue heaping criticism on the SPD's position on the Dalai Lama. Merkel, in Latin America on the tail end of a five-day visit, has said that she would have been happy to meet with the Tibetan leader again had her schedule allowed. Other high-ranking CDU politicians -- in addition to those from the CDU Bavarian sister party Christian Social Union (CSU) -- have held talks with him in her stead. German commentators on Monday once again weigh in on the controversy.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"This episode is a disgrace for a party that rarely misses a chance to praise itself for always having been on the side of peace, freedom and democracy. But it is also a disgrace for Germany on the whole. The back-and-forth position on the Dalai Lama is seen by many Germans as kowtowing to the Chinese -- and rightly so. There is an English name for this type of hemming and hawing: Appeasement…. For those who support this strategy, even a handshake with the Dalai Lama is a symbolic political move that makes progress on the Tibet question more difficult. Such a position is often referred to as realpolitik; those who don't understand are accused of being naïve.

But even realpolitik cannot be separated from the fundamental values held by a society. Otherwise it is reduced to its cynical core."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung agrees:

"The numerous Tibet flags hanging from balconies in German cities make it obvious where public opinion lies. But the SPD seems to have missed this sign of the times. Even as numerous CDU and CSU politicians have used the opportunity to bask in the glow of a good cause by receiving the Dalai Lama during his Germany visit, the Social Democrats have come out looking like heartless bureaucrats who value a good relationship with China above human rights."

"SPD leaders argue that human rights in China would benefit were symbolic meetings avoided in favor of political pressure being exerted behind the scenes. But that position implies that they know better than the Dalai Lama how to help the Tibetans. But nobody is buying it."

Conservative daily Die Welt sees parallels to the SPD position during the latter stages of the Cold War in the 1980s:

"Back then, the SPD, as the opposition party, supported a policy of far-reaching dialogue with state and party leaders within the East Bloc. At the same time, the party abstained from meeting with civil rights activists and representatives of the opposition. Only very few within the SPD had the courage to speak with both sides."

"SPD bigwig Egon Bahr's concept of improving relations with the East Bloc through dialogue (a 1960s policy referred to as 'Ostpolitik') was, by the 1980s, interpreted by his party as meaning that one should not provoke the leadership in Moscow, Warsaw or East Berlin. Of course, the Dalai Lama is hardly an activist on the model of the anti-communists from the Polish Solidarity movement. But the parallels between then and now are difficult to ignore. Once again, the SPD has become fixated on 'stability' and the status quo. They are happy to talk with those in power while ignoring society at large."

-- Charles Hawley; 12:45 p.m. CET


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