The World from Berlin: China's View of Germany Is 'Flattering but Dangerous'

During her two-day visit to China, German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to get Beijing on board for her efforts to rescue the euro. The Chinese leadership sees Germany as leading the European fight against the crisis. German commentators warn that Berlin should not let itself be seduced by Beijing's attention.

Merkel talks to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Tianjin on Friday. Zoom
DPA

Merkel talks to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Tianjin on Friday.

Back in 2007, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was happy to provoke the Chinese leadership by receiving the Dalai Lama in Berlin, a gesture that led to an icy period in German-Chinese relations.

Five years later, Merkel's approach to China is all about harmony and the grand gesture. By traveling to China with an entourage of cabinet ministers and industry representatives, Merkel was eager to show how much Berlin values its relation to Beijing.

One situation has developed in the meantime may have played a key role in Merkel's change of heart: the euro crisis. Merkel is hoping for Chinese help in getting the euro zone out of its current woes. After all, Beijing is sitting on massive foreign exchange reserves, currently estimated at $3.2 trillion. The Europeans hope Beijing can be persuaded to continue investing in Europe or in EU bailout funds.

Premier Wen Jiabao assured Merkel that he would support her efforts to solve the crisis through further Chinese investments in European sovereign bonds and companies -- with the precondition, he added, that the investments are safe and profitable.

Confidence in the Euro

During her two-day visit, Merkel sought to promote confidence in the monetary union, emphasizing that the Europeans had the political will and means to keep the euro zone together. But she also asked for patience, saying that the crisis could not be solved "with a single blow."

The visit also marked a new directness on the part of the Chinese when it comes to discussing the euro crisis. Sources in the German delegation told the news agency DPA that there had been "no-holds-barred" discussions about the crisis during a dinner attended by Merkel, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and leading Chinese finance officials. Earlier, Wen had expressed his incomprehension about why the Europeans were taking so long to implement the necessary steps to fight the crisis.

German observers were critical of Merkel's apparent reluctance to tackle the issue of human rights during her visit. The German chancellor did, however, ask the Beijing leadership to improve working conditions for foreign correspondents after German journalists in China wrote a letter claiming they had been harassed by authorities.

On Friday, German commentators mull over evolving German-Chinese relations.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Economic relations between the two countries have evolved spectacularly. China is today one of Germany's closest economic partners and is interested in German technology. Germany's China policy is largely determined by economic interests. In turn, China regards Germany as the leading power in Europe and is treated as such. That is flattering -- and is also dangerous."

"No matter how dynamically the relation develops in terms of trade and investment, there can never be a 'special relationship' between the communist People's Republic and Germany, a democratic country in the heart of the European Union, at least not in the sense of the Anglo-American connection. The two countries' ideas about the state and society, and about the rule of law and human rights, are too far apart for that. We should not delude ourselves: The fact that the chancellor is being viewed, both in Beijing and in Washington, as the true voice of Europe in international relations may flatter Germany. But not all of Germany's European partners will be pleased. Instead, it confirms their suspicions that Germany wants to be dominant and go it alone, no matter how nonsensical those ideas are."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"During her visit to China, the chancellor had her hands full trying to keep an important future investor from pulling its capital out of the euro zone. (…) Merkel's unyielding commitment to keep Greece in the euro zone and to the reforms which will hopefully soon begin to bear visible fruit was music to the ears of the Chinese. Both the German chancellor and the Chinese premier are concerned about their own political credibility. But they are even more concerned about the long-term credibility of the euro."

"In the precarious global economic situation, certain statements about the euro which are prompted mainly by electioneering, are gaining a lot of weight. This also applies to those voices in Bavaria's Christian Social Union who are calling for Athens to be kicked out of the euro zone. Certain people in Bavaria might not realize that a butterfly flapping its wings in Munich could cause a hurricane in China. But when the CSU, as the sister party of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, no longer supports the chancellor's course, it could have a grave impact, given that it comes at a time when China is about to see a change in leadership. (…) Nobody should believe that German politicians have a monopoly on trying to gain short-term influence with the help of euroskeptic posturing."

In a guest editorial for the financial daily Handelsblatt, Frank Sieren, a German expert on China, writes:

"Wen said he was 'personally very concerned' about the euro zone and explained to Merkel how she could solve the crisis: Europeans must restore confidence by finding a balance between frugality and economic stimulus. In short, the EU can not destroy economic growth through austerity measures. That is closer to the American position than to the German one."

"Even just five years ago, no Chinese premier would have ventured to express himself so clearly about another country. Wen's remarks are not only an expression of the new self-confidence of the rising global power. They also show the dilemma that Beijing faces. On the one hand, China needs Europe as a market for its goods and the euro as a counterweight to the US dollar. On the other hand, the Chinese leadership can't risk too much in supporting the euro. It already has enough trouble because it has invested the bulk of its foreign exchange reserves in US government bonds. (…) Under the current circumstances, Beijing is undoubtedly more interested in an economic stimulus package than rigorous austerity."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Forget the days when Angela Merkel received the Dalai Lama at the Chancellery for 'private talks' and found herself attracting the wrath of the Chinese leadership as a result. That was five years ago. The German chancellor now travels to China every year (…). Never have relations between Berlin and the authoritarian regime in Beijing been as excellent as they are at present."

"But all the mutual economic interests should not allow the human rights dialogue with China to be forgotten. A meeting with Chinese environmental activists stood on the agenda of Merkel's two-day visit. She also criticized the deteriorating working conditions of German foreign correspondents in China. But at least three meetings were solely in the interests of German business. That is disproportionate."

"Germany currently enjoys a high standing in China. (…) Merkel could have used this opportunity to speak out in favor of human rights. The fact that she did not can be attributed to the changes that the current crisis has caused -- or perhaps to changes in Merkel herself. What would the Dalai Lama make of it all?"

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"The technology nation of Germany and the growth market of China are not only dependent on each other as business partners -- they also need each other politically. Merkel is in China to promote confidence in the euro and try to persuade Beijing that greater involvement in the rescue measures are in China's interest. In conflicts such as Syria or Iran, the chancellor will encourage Beijing to come out of Russia's shadow. Such discussions are pleasant for Merkel, because the same things that are criticized as weak leadership back home can be seen as skillful diplomacy here."

"But too much Sino-German harmony is also not a good thing. The formal pomp of the government consultation is no substitute for taking a clear position on issues of conflict. These include the discrimination that German companies have suffered in China, despite all the enthusiasm for economic cooperation, in the form of being excluded from markets, predatory pricing or patent infringements. It also includes China's restrictions on human rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression and press freedom."

"It is beyond question that in a partnership one needs to make concessions. But at what point does the willingness to compromise become self-denial?"

-- David Gordon Smith

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1.
Lim RC 09/01/2012
One must understand first that the Chinese system of government and culture and history is very very different from the West. With regard to the distaste for wars or the strong preference of the Chinese people for a strong central government stems from the chaos that resulted from the Warring States period (~600BC), the Three Kingdoms Period civil war (after the collapse of the Han Dynasty into different political factions ~200AD), the period of civil war during the An LuShan rebellion in the Tang dynasty that ravaged the countryside and brought poverty to the people (~850AD), the civil wars between the communists and Nationalists and weaknesses that led to the rapid Japanese advance in China, which was only halted at ChongQing - where unity led to successful defences from 1941 onward after 4 years of Japanese advances). The Chinese have come over a period of 4000 years of history to respect stability and unity above all else. One must also realise that China is a huge country to govern and is for all intents and purposes still a developing and poor country. Also, while some Chinese leaders and people say they do not want Democracy/ western values/ systems of government, one must realise that these same leaders are actively learning the best ideas from the West as well, while cutting down on some of their excesses. These same ideas of civil institutions (which have never existed for the past 4000 years in China, and is a very very alien concept as everything was provided by the State) are beginning to be appreciated more as time goes by. Western notions of civil or human rights is not something that China does not understand as well, but it has a huge population to provide for and the sacrifices of a few to provide safety and stability for the rest is something that China will do. China is too poor to have the luxury of excessive individual rights. Having said that, the best way to promote human rights and democracy in China is actually to make the people richer. The richer they are, the more educated they are, the more demands they will have and this will inevitably lead to a more democratic system with free elections etc (still not fully, but definitely more at least legally as culturally, the people still would place society and the country before the individual.) As we speak, these same experiments are still being held across China in the village level and in certain counties (Special Political Zones if you will rather than Special Economic Zones). Likewise, the attitude of many in the West will determine if this will succeed. If they push too hard, the natural Chinese reaction will be to push back. So let democracy and human rights advance at its own pace. Afterall, in Europe, the push and advances towards democracy was a gradual process as well, and many did not become democratic only until the 20th century (e.g. UK, Germany, Italy, etc). On the other hand, i think it is quite likely to say that if China collapses, it would probably bring their enemies down with them in mutual destruction e.g. nuclear war etc, as in Chinese history, the people and leadership will not stand for humiliation or defeat again, and will place their hopes that their long and ancient culture and civilization will survive the post-nuclear world. (yes sounds far fetched to you I know, but this is the view - as they have survived the mongols, plagues, Japanese invasion (where 30 million civilians were killed, and the capital captured twice but still did not surrender, eventually defeating them in major engagements from 1941 onwards). However, China too is quite a benign power as per ancient times, with little want for war or intervention in foreign affairs (ie the world is free to do what it wants, as long as it does not affect China). China does not seek to impose her values on the world as that is quite a ridiculous and impractical thing to do (culturally speaking for the Chinese). China's rise will not mean that the West cannot practise democracy or keep their own values of human rights as many media like to suggest/ claim. However, what I can see changing is the way that developing nations will develop, with a focus on economy and access to basic food, water, education etc before shifting their governments towards full fledged democracy. Have a look at the Phillipines or the former USSR which have been democratic for over 30 years and you can see the huge difference in living standards. Likewise, the governments of the west and Japan, South Korea, Singapore all developed as authoritarian states before becoming democratic and prosperous. (continued)
2.
Lim RC 09/01/2012
As a side note, while the Chinese people know they have different cultural values from Germany, they respect the German's culture and way of life, and especially the open way with which the Germans have apologised to Europe and dedicated teaching of their war-time past accurately. This is something very difficult to do and the Chinese people respect that very much. In fact, the Chinese people think that because of such forthrightness, the onus of German-Europe relationship should be on the other countries themselves, rather than the peaceful and industrious country of Germany. There is huge room for cooperation between Germany and the Chinese people, not only from China, but also the Chinese merchants and people in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Phillipines, Indonesia, Cambodia, etc where they have a huge economic control of the market. China wishes to see a prosperous Germany, and hope many countries will learn from Germany's peaceful stance, industriousness, as well as honesty with dealing with their own atrocities in the wartime past. All the best Lim
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