Photos of detained Uyghurs, scenes from an internment camp in Xinjiang, President Xi: A disturbing reality

Photos of detained Uyghurs, scenes from an internment camp in Xinjiang, President Xi: A disturbing reality


[M]: Xinjiang Police Files; Sébastien Muylaert / action press

Berlin's Other Problem After Xinjiang Revelations, Germany's Ties to China Are Under the Microscope

Germany is even more dependent on Beijing than it is on Moscow. Following the revelations of the Xinjiang Police Files, politicians and executives are facing a difficult question: What crimes are they willing to tolerate in exchange for prosperity?

At the time of Mahmut Tohti's birth, the People's Republic of China didn't yet exist. He was born in a village south of the Central Asian oasis city of Kashgar, on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. He had hoped to die and be buried there, in the region now known as the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, just like his parents, whose graves he had planted with a garden of mulberry trees.

The garden is gone. And the Chinese authorities leveled the graves of his parents. Tohti now lives in Istanbul.

A long staircase leads up to his apartment on the Golden Horn. He is 80 years old, walks with a cane and wears a blue scarf around his neck. Blue is the color of the Uyghurs, China's large Muslim minority, to which Tohti belongs, as do his sons, children-in-law and grandchildren. When reporters from DER SPIEGEL and the BBC visit Tohti in Turkey in early May, he hasn't heard from his family in years.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 22/2022 (May 28th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

The journalists tell him that his eldest son, Polat, 55, was arrested in 2017 and sentenced to 11, possibly as many as 15, years in prison. This is shown in classified Chinese government documents viewed by DER SPIEGEL and its media partners.

"My God," Tohti says. "Can I ask why?"

According to the Chinese authorities, the reason for Polat Tohti's detention is "traveling in sensitive countries, studying illegal writings and preparing to commit terrorist activities."

"Allah," Mahmut Tohti says again. "How could he possibly have anything to do with terrorism? He barely even knows how to hold a knife."

Tohti's youngest son, Ghappar, 48, was sentenced to seven years. The father knew that Ghappar had been arrested, because Tohti had been in China when it happened. "His seven-year-old daughter, Raziye, came back from school. She wanted to give me a neck massage, so I let her. Then, she started crying all of a sudden. I asked her why she's crying."

Raziye replied that she missed her father. "The child asked me why I let her father study religion. He wouldn't have been taken away if I didn't do that. Then I started to cry as well."

According to the Chinese authorities, Ghappar Tohti is in prison for allegedly "promoting terrorism, subverting the law, gathering a crowd to disturb public order." Tohti's daughter-in-law Amannisagül is also in prison, as is one of his granddaughters, Arzigül, who was sentenced to five years, also for "disturbing the public order."

Tunisagül Nurmemet was sentenced to 16 years in prison. The documents state that she instigated strife and disturbed public order by gathering a crowd.

Tunisagül Nurmemet was sentenced to 16 years in prison. The documents state that she instigated strife and disturbed public order by gathering a crowd.

Foto: Xinjiang Police Files

All this information and more about the fate of thousands of other Uyghur families comes from classified and internal Chinese government documents, internment lists, detainee photos, training instructions and speech transcripts.

DER SPIEGEL, together with a team of more than 30 journalists from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and a number of international media outlets, including the BBC, Spain's El Pais, France's Le Monde and German public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk, examined the documents, verified them in random samples and published the results. The Xinjiang Police Files.

In their numbers and variety, these documents put the debate over Chinese in a new context: They provide evidence that is impossible to ignore for politicians, business leaders and society in all countries that interact with China. And that is especially true of Germany, which has become more dependent on Beijing than almost any other country in the West.

The documents were leaked to the German anthropologist Adrian Zenz, who has spent years researching Xinjiang, and represent the largest data leak to date from the security apparatus of the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. They document in detail – and, for the first time, with numerous photos  – the dimensions of the systematic yet arbitrary repression in China's westernmost region.

People from infancy to old age are included in the data. Hundreds of thousands from the county of Konasheher, where Mahmut Tohti's family is from, are listed in the data from 2018, including names, birth dates and ID numbers. Well over 22,000 of them were interned that year, according to the Xinjiang Police Files, a number representing more than 12 percent of the entire adult population.

The reasons for the detentions are sometimes banal, often grotesque, and in some cases date back years. A young man who worked out in a gym in 2011 was sentenced to 12 years in prison six years later for "preparing a terrorist act." Another, who was taught Islamic studies by his father as a child in 2002 and then circumvented internet censorship as a young adult, was sentenced to five years and 11 months.

The documents shine a spotlight on what is likely the largest internment campaign since Stalin's gulags. Officially, counter-terrorism is the goal - or, as Beijing's diplomats euphemistically put it, "vocational education and training." In truth, the Xinjiang Police Files reveal the paranoia and brutality of a police state whose leading representatives, and this too can be read in the papers, call on officers to "shoot dead" those prisoners who try to escape.

The documents confront the international community with the disturbing reality of an authoritarian regime. Of a technologically and militarily powerful country that has risen in the past 40 years from a developing nation to the world's largest trading power, and whose leadership likely has ambitions to shape not only Xinjiang, but also other parts of the world in its image.

The Xinjiang Police Files and the policies toward China's minorities they highlight expose the dark side of a government model whose efficiency many in the West have admired for years, from industrial to pandemic policy, from poverty reduction to digitalization. "The Future? China!" is the title of a German nonfiction bestseller published in 2018.

Even more pressing than its increasingly assertive foreign and economic policies, Beijing's repression of the Uyghurs confronts many countries with the question of whether they should align their positions toward China with their interests or with their values – and how far they are willing to go for their prosperity.

Photo of a detainee: Highlight the dark side of a government model whose efficiency many in the West have admired for years

Photo of a detainee: Highlight the dark side of a government model whose efficiency many in the West have admired for years

Foto: Xinjiang Police Files

This question is vital for all governments, starting with those in predominantly Muslim countries whose fellow faithful are being persecuted in Xinjiang. But it is also crucial for democratic states, whose economies cooperate especially intensively with China: the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea – and, above all, Germany.

Officials in Berlin have long been aware of the catastrophic situation in the Uyghur areas. An October 2021 situation report from the German Foreign Ministry stated that the situation in the region "continues to deteriorate" and that control and monitoring measures were becoming increasingly more severe. The report also discusses "arbitrary arrests," "collective punishment" and "mass internment of likely over 1 million people."

The paper states that "there is concern that some methods used in Xinjiang may now be adopted in other regions."

No other country in the European Union is as closely economically intertwined economically with China as the Federal Republic of Germany. Over the past 20 years, the two countries have benefited from each other – and from globalization – more than almost any other.

Initially, Germany was the stronger partner, but the tables have since been turned. China's economic output is now four times that of Germany's, and on the list of China's most important trading partners, Germany has slid to number six. China, though, has been Germany's most important trading partner since 2016. Specific industries in Germany generate a significant share of their revenues in China, and some German companies are almost totally dependent on their business in the People's Republic.

It has long been clear that, while China may be a major trading partner, there are also significant problems with respect to human rights, Vice Chancellor and Green Party member Robert Habeck said after news of the revelations emerged. "That has been ignored for years."

The country has become more severe since Xi Jinping assumed power.

Berlin has been experiencing just how dangerous economic dependence on an authoritarian state can be for a democratic government since the start of the war in Ukraine.

But Germany's ties with China go far beyond those it has with Russia. Here it isn't just two sectors in question, albeit central ones such as gas and oil supply, but entire industries – from chemicals and textiles to the automotive industry, with supply chains that reach deep into the two economies. Germany's trade volume with China is four times greater than that with Russia. Automotive supplier Bosch alone employs more than 50,000 people in China. The VW Group is also deeply dependent  on China and is therefore prepared to make considerable concessions.

Germany, says Habeck's fellow Green party member Anton Hofreiter, needs to rethink its business model. "To put it bluntly, German prosperity is based on the fact that we buy cheap raw materials from one dictatorship, Russia, and then manufacture products here in order to sell them to another dictatorship, China. This has to stop."

Many observers in the West still regard the Chinese leadership as a comparatively predictable actor. Most experts don't believe that Beijing will carry out the kind of military actions that Moscow did in Georgia and Syria, let alone the kind of war of aggression that Putin unleashed on Ukraine.

But since President Xi Jinping assumed power, the country has hardened its stance: domestically, as seen by the repression of the Uyghurs, and ideologically, as can be seen in the repressions in Hong Kong and by Beijing's rigid adherence to its zero-COVID strategy, not even allowing Western vaccines into the country as a matter of principle.

Meanwhile, Beijing has also changed faces geopolitically through a de facto alliance with Putin's Russia and its increasingly blatant claim to power in the Pacific, especially with its ever more aggressive threats to Taiwan. China's leadership views Taiwan as part of its own territory and is seeking "reunification" of the de facto independent island state with mainland China.

What would Germany do if Beijing were to take action against Taiwan, a scenario that is currently unlikely, but also can't be ruled out?

How Can Berlin Make Its Red Lines Clear To Beijing?

More importantly, though: How did Berlin even allow itself to get into the position of having to seriously consider such scenarios and their consequences for Germany's security and prosperity? And what can Berlin do to make its red lines clear to the Chinese leadership, particularly given the shocking images and data from Xinjiang?

Christoph Heusgen recalls precisely when he first learned about the fate of the Uyghurs: It was in 2006, shortly after Angela Merkel chose him as her foreign policy adviser. The newly appointed chancellor flew to Washington for her inaugural visit. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, she had previously called for the closure of the Guantanamo detention center, where the U.S. interned suspected terrorists under inhumane conditions after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The detainees included a group of Uyghurs. Most of them had been captured at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and handed over to the Americans. The terrorist organization al-Qaida had also been operating in the area.

According to U.S. sources, at least three of the Uyghur detainees claimed to have been trained by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant Uyghur group that had been classified as a terrorist organization by several Western countries.

But the Uyghurs denied having had any involvement in the 9/11 attacks. They said it wasn't the U.S. that was their enemy, but rather the repressive regime in Beijing. Fifteen of the prisoners were released in 2005, and the U.S. government was looking for countries to which it could deport them. U.S. President George W. Bush reacted to Merkel's criticism of Guantanamo with a request that Germany also accept Uyghur prisoners from the camp.

Scenes from an internment camp in Xinjiang: Confronted by the reality of an authoritarian regime

Scenes from an internment camp in Xinjiang: Confronted by the reality of an authoritarian regime

Foto: ASPI / MAXAR / [M] DER SPIEGEL; ASPI / MAXAR; Xinjiang Police Files

Shortly before Merkel's visit to Washington, Heusgen was briefed on the fate of the Uyghurs by a representative of the organization Human Rights Watch. Immediately after the trip, the chancellor sent him to the state of Bavaria, which was already home to one of the largest Uyghur communities outside of China at the time. But officials responsible for domestic security blocked Bush's request, and it would be years before Germany accepted the first Guantanamo detainees.

During that time, Heusgen met Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress, an exile organization based in Munich. Isa had been one of the leaders of the pro-democracy demonstrations at Xinjiang University in Ürümqi in the late 1980s. He fled China in 1994 and received German citizenship in 2006.

Heusgen says that the chancellor repeatedly raised the fate of the Uyghurs with Chinese officials. In 2015, Merkel asked a meeting partner why China wasn't doing a better job of integrating the Uyghurs into society. She spoke about the German national football team and enumerated how many of the players with immigration backgrounds represented Germany on the country's World Cup-winning team. Boateng, Khedira, Klose, Özil and Podolski. Without integration, Germany wouldn't have become world champion in 2014, Merkel said. She said that China's treatment of the Uyghurs and other minorities is a mistake.

When Heusgen went to New York in 2017 as Germany's permanent representative to the United Nations, he arranged for Uyghur official Dolkun Isa to make an appearance at UN headquarters as well. Isa spoke as a representative of the Society for Threatened Peoples.

"The Chinese wanted to stop it at all costs, made a huge fuss and even had Isa put on an Interpol list so that the U.S. wouldn't let him in," Heusgen says. "We then secured his removal from the list."

The extent to which such stunts bothered China became apparent to Heusgen in 2020 after his final speech as German ambassador to the UN. After calling on China to release two Canadians Beijing had detained as leverage to free an executive imprisoned in Canada, his Chinese counterpart let loose on him: "Now, I wish to say out of the bottom of my heart: Good riddance, Ambassador Heusgen."

Systemic rival, competitor or business partner: During Merkel's tenure, the Chancellery repeatedly discussed which of these aspects should play the leading role in relations with China.

There were two schools of thought: Foreign policy adviser Heusgen says he emphasized the totalitarian nature of the regime in Beijing and warned about China's geopolitical ambitions. Merkel's economic team, on the other hand, emphasized above all the importance of the giant country as a market for German companies.

Even then, the argument that one could exert influence on the communist-ruled country through cooperation still played a role. Just recently, Merkel's former economic adviser Lars-Hendrik Röller told the business newspaper Handelsblatt, "The Chinese are very interested in cooperating with us economically. We should take advantage of that."

Photo of a detainee: The reasons for arrests are often trivial

Photo of a detainee: The reasons for arrests are often trivial

Foto: Xinjiang Police Files

In retrospect, the fact that such discussions even took place under Merkel's leadership seems almost like an achievement.

Her predecessor Gerhard Schröder clearly prioritized business ties. It was he who institutionalized the idea of the German chancellor traveling once a year to China, usually accompanied by a large delegation of business executives. At times, there were three times as many applicants for the trips as there were spaces available. "The whole DAX index went along for the ride," recalls one person who joined one of the trips, referring to Germany's blue chip companies.

Reports from the period lay bare the extreme closeness that existed between Berlin and Beijing back then. In 2003, for example, Schröder went to China with plans to sell Beijing a plutonium factory and to show his support for lifting the arms embargo that Western countries had imposed after the suppression of the Tiananmen uprising in 1989 (initiatives that would both later fail).

In a discussion with Chinese students, Schröder addressed the Taiwan issue, which was thorny even then. He said he not only understood Beijing's position on the issue, but also shared it: "I believe that China is and must remain one country."

Politicians Gerhard Schröder, Olaf Scholz and Angela Merkel: a dangerous dependency

Politicians Gerhard Schröder, Olaf Scholz and Angela Merkel: a dangerous dependency


[M] DER SPIEGEL / [M] DER SPIEGEL; A. Ortega / Abaca Press / picture alliance; K. Nietfeld / dpa; J. Beunardeau / Hans Lucas / picture alliance; J. Macdougall / AFP / dpa Picture Alliance; Xinjiang Police Files

In 2004, he traveled to Beijing to seal the sale of locomotives, a sewage treatment plant and a foil factory. Once again, the lifting of the EU arms embargo was a point of discussion. DER SPIEGEL ran the headline "The Traveling Salesman" for one of its reports on the trip, and "Schröder Makes a Bang in China" for another.

Schröder's term in office marked the beginning of Germany's special path in its relations with China. Apart from carmaker Volkswagen's early entry into the country at the start of the 1980s, Germany had until then followed the same path as most Western countries: the establishment of diplomatic relations shortly after Richard Nixon's trip to China in 1972, cautious rapprochement after Mao's death in 1976 and the beginning of the reform and opening policy under Deng Xiaoping, the significant cooling of relations after the suppression of the Tiananmen protests in 1989.

But the paths shared by Germany and the West diverged after the turn of the millennium. Whereas the U.S. relied all the more decisively on the internet economy after the dotcom bubble burst and developed Silicon Valley into the world's digital innovation center, the Germans opted for a different growth model: economic exchange with the world's potentially largest market, China.

The country joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and needed the most technologically advanced products of traditional industry to accelerate its modernization: machinery to equip its factories, power plants, high-speed trains and subways to expand its infrastructure, cars to provide status symbols for China's emerging middle class. Precisely the types of products that Germany has to offer, so German business plunged into its China adventure under the battle cry "Go East."

Photo of a detainee: China presents a human rights problem.

Photo of a detainee: China presents a human rights problem.

Foto: Xinjiang Police Files

It's not just companies like Siemens, Daimler and BASF that rely on China. Thousands of suppliers and small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) also invested in China in ways that soon took on the characteristics of a gold rush. SME lobby associations organized excursions, company heads relocated to Beijing or Shanghai on a quarterly basis, and consultants for China were in high demand.

Soon, virtually every German industrial company had a branch office in China, and order books were overflowing. In contrast to the U.S., where it was primarily imports that increased, trade with China also boosted Germany's exports. Over the past three decades, German exports to China have grown by more than 4,700 percent. Around 9 percent of Germany's export growth in this period went to China.

On several occasions, the country proved to be a savior in economically difficult times. When German industry plunged into a deep structural crisis after reunification, business from China helped the "sick man of Europe" as the Economist had labeled Germany, to rise again.

Many entrepreneurs viewed China as a model politically.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the German economy benefited from Beijing's multi-billion-dollar stimulus and infrastructure programs. And in 2020, it was China's rapid recovery after the outbreak of the COVID pandemic that saved Germany's industrial sector from an even deeper slump.

German business leaders saw China as a promised land where money could be earned in copious amounts last seen in Germany during the country's "economic miracle" in the 1950s. In China, growth was a state goal that, in contrast to Germany, was not questioned by citizens' initiatives or environmental associations, nor by troublesome regulatory authorities. Soon, the country came to be regarded by many entrepreneurs and managers not only as an economic role model, but also a political one.

Deutsche Post CEO Frank Appel praised the fact that "China is tackling the modernization of its infrastructure more consistently and faster than Germany." Technology entrepreneur Jürgen Heraeus was impressed by the fact that Chinese politicians "fly on technology" and aren't "such worriers as the Germans." Former Siemens CEO Peter Löscher hailed the "long-term perspectives in Chinese politics," saying there was "definitely something to learn" from them.

Löscher's successor Joe Kaeser then went on to praise Beijing's "One Belt One Road" initiative at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018. This multi-billion dollar transport and infrastructure belt, whose land route to Europe runs right through the Uyghur region of Xinjiang, will one day replace the World Trade Organization, "whether you like it or not," he said.

Of course, there are "one or two problems" in China when it comes to democracy or human rights, admitted former BASF CEO Jürgen Hambrecht, one of Merkel's most important advisers. But he also noted that in China, "a great deal has already changed as a result of the dialogue with the West." China, he said, was "trying very hard to move in the right direction" – a colossal miscalculation, as the documents now show.

There it was again, that naïve theory of Wandel durch Handel - change through trade - that guided not only Germany's Russia policy but also its approach to China. The idea was that the economic opening would soon be followed by the political one, and it was a narrative promoted by government ministers and executives alike, largely rooted in the experience with the détente and Ostpolitik of the 1970s.

Trade did in fact promote change in China – but it didn't go in the expected direction. Politically, the People's Republic developed more and more in the direction of an autocracy and surveillance state, and economically, the leadership in Beijing pursued a strategy of partial autarky. Step by step, they want to make the country independent of foreign technology, also at the expense of the German economy.

The German solar industry became the first to feel the impact. It has since been squeezed out of the market by highly subsidized Chinese competition. Next in line were manufacturers of high-speed trains, who suddenly found themselves facing a state-backed Chinese monopoly company on the world markets.

The idea of using billions in subsidies to take over global markets is a principle Beijing intends to continue following. In a strategy document titled, "Made in China 2025," the country's industrial policymakers listed sectors ranging from shipbuilding to biomedicine in which they want to take market share from Western manufacturers through government regulations, subsidies or outright takeovers of Western technology companies, as shown, for example, in the acquisition of German robot manufacturer Kuka by China's Midea Group in 2016.

The realization gradually dawned in the executive suites of German corporations that China could not only be a trading partner, but was also a "systemic competitor," as a policy paper published in 2019 by the Federation of German Industries (BDI) states.

The only problem is that large parts of the German economy are now dependent on the billions of euros provided by its new rival. For example, VW now sells more than one in three cars in China.

According to a study by the Ifo Institute, the Munich-based economic think tank, Germany is also dependent on Chinese suppliers for chemical goods as well as electrical and transport equipment. Around 65 percent of the raw materials for an electric motor come from China.

China experts believe the German economy is falling into a "turkey trap." Fattened by the feed from the People's Republic, many companies don't realize that they are already destined for slaughter. "The situation is still being played down," says Max Zenglein, an economic expert at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin.

During the Merkel era, politicians gradually moved away from the overly simplistic slogan of "change through trade." At the same time, though, Berlin maintained that it viewed economic relations as a way of compensating for the growing political tensions with Beijing. "The current German government is having a hard time moving away from the Merkel way," Zenglein says.

This is even more true for individual companies. Some seem to be ignoring the advice of experts to reduce business with China in favor of other trading partners in Asia. On the contrary: According to a survey conducted by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, the Stuttgart-based Daimler Group is even planning to further increase its sales in China. Meanwhile, the optics company Carl Zeiss continues to see China as a "growth market" towards which it is "strategically directed."

To protect themselves from the geopolitical risks of doing business in China, some corporations are adopting a regional strategy, concentrating production on local suppliers and customers to immunize themselves against trade wars and political conflicts. But that won't work in a pinch, warns Katrin Kamin of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a respected German economic think tank. "If the economic conflict or geopolitical confrontation intensifies, production in China could become impossible."

An Example for other European Countries

The growth of Germany's economic ties with China over the years has also impressed other European countries. With some delay, French, Italian and Spanish politicians and managers also followed the German example. London and Beijing even proclaimed a "golden age" in Sino-British relations under then-Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015. But it didn't last for long.

Former Australian prime minister and Sinologist Kevin Rudd argued in an interview with DER SPIEGEL last fall that that Europe's China logic in recent years has been pretty simple: "First, China is a security problem for the United States and its Asian allies, but not us in Europe. Second, China presents an economic opportunity for us in Europe, which should be maximized. And third, China represents a human rights problem, which occasionally we'll engage in with some appropriate form of political theater."

Unlike, the United States, where China policy is one of the few issues that unites Republicans and Democrats, in Germany it is colored by party and the ministries they each lead. In the final years of Merkel's government, a somewhat more brash Foreign Ministry, headed by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), repeatedly faced off against the more China-friendly Chancellery and center-right Christian Democrat-led Economics Ministry and didn't shy away from disputes.

The two ministries, for example, fought for a year and a half over the allocation of 5G mobile communications licenses. Miguel Berger, a state secretary in the Germany Foreign Ministry, was urging for the law to be written in such a way that the controversial Chinese network supplier Huawei could be excluded from the licensing process. The Chancellery, on the other hand, was opposed to such an exclusion, and the discussion dragged on, although the Foreign Ministry did prevail in the end.

The debate over Germany's Supply Chain Act was similar. The aim of the legislation is to ensure that important products from emerging economies have been manufactured under humane conditions. But the German business community fought against the provision that would have placed the onus on companies to prove that their suppliers comply with human rights.

The Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, on the other hand, called for a strict law. In the end, politicians reached a compromise. But even that went too far for business lobbying groups. They ultimately prevailed in ensuring that there would be no costly penalties in the law for violations. At the moment, they are lobbying to push back the Jan. 1, 2023, date for the Supply Chain Act to go into effect.

In the negotiations to form the current German government, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the Green Party, especially, called for a more values-based China policy. The SPD, for its part, sought to soften the formulations. But the Greens and the FDP did succeed in pushing through some of their ideas.

"We want to and must shape our relations with China in the dimensions of partnership, competition and systemic rivalry," states the government coalition agreement between the SPD, Greens and FDP. "We clearly address China's human rights violations, especially in Xinjiang." It also states that Germany will seek cooperation with China, but "on the basis of human rights and applicable international law."

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wants to present a China strategy by the end of the year. Robert Habeck's Economics Ministry also wants to contribute to formulating that policy. The main aim is to reduce dependence on China; German companies are to be encouraged to invest in other Asian countries.

However, the German government rejects the kind of "decoupling" from China that is advocated by both the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. They argue that this isn't possible if the Paris climate targets are to be achieved. "China will remain a trading partner, but we need to reduce our dependence in terms of raw material imports and industrial exports," says Franziska Brantner, parliamentary state secretary in the Economics Ministry. In June, the Green Party politician will travel to South America to learn about alternative sources for raw materials, particularly lithium for battery production.

"We need to make sure that taxpayer money isn't contributing to blatant human rights abuses."

Franziska Brantner, parliamentary state secretary in the Economics Ministry

If the Greens and the FDP have their way, German companies will no longer be able to count on support from the government in Berlin for investments in China. A directive has been issued in the Economics Ministry to stop approving Hermes loan guarantees for investments that are intended for Xinjiang. Credit guarantees for investments by German companies in factories that purchase and process products from Xinjiang are also prohibited. "We need to make sure that taxpayer money isn't contributing to blatant human rights abuses," Brantner says.

In principle, the SPD also supports the plan to reduce dependency on China. But the FDP and Greens assert that the Chancellery is constantly applying the brakes to those plans.

At times, it appears as though Olaf Scholz is following in the tradition of his predecessors. At the end of 2021, the chancellor spoke by phone with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and discussed "the deepening partnership and economic relations."

According to the Chinese state media, Xi had urged that relations "stay on track." He also said that the "excellent tradition of high-ranking leadership" should be preserved, likely an indication that Germany's China policy should remain a matter for the chancellor and not be determined by Foreign Minister Baerbock, who is critical of China.

One example of the Chancellery's hesitance when it comes to its China policy is the International Procurement Instrument. The European Commission proposed this regulation back in 2012 to make it difficult for companies from countries that restrict market access for European countries to enter the European market.

Photo of a detainee: In their mass and variety, these documents put the Chinese debate, which has been raging in many countries for years, in a new context.

Photo of a detainee: In their mass and variety, these documents put the Chinese debate, which has been raging in many countries for years, in a new context.

Foto: Xinjiang Police Files

The regulation was intended as a Lex China, a response to Beijing's protectionism. But EU diplomats report that Merkel's economic adviser Röller blocked it for years.

With the change of government in Berlin, the issue has gained momentum again, with Habeck and Baerbock supporting the project and only Chancellor Scholz hesitating. But in mid-March, the Chancellery abandoned its opposition, and Germany cleared the way for negotiations between EU member states and the European Parliament.

The Greens and the FDP have long been critical of China's growing influence, says Ulrich Lechte, foreign policy spokesman for the FDP parliamentary group in the Bundestag. This applies to human rights violations, threats to Taiwan and violations of international trade rules. The current government in Berlin must "find clear and unambiguous answers," Lechte says. "The largest partner, the SPD, will have a harder time reorienting itself in the process."

The German government could signal that there is no "business as usual" after the revelations from Xinjiang by putting the regular German-Chinese government consultations on hold.

And even if it were possible under Beijing's strict coronavirus regime, a celebration to mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary in October of diplomatic relations between Germany and China would seem inappropriate. Originally, the German chancellor had been scheduled to make his first trip to China during the first half of the year, but according to sources in Berlin, the trip has been put on hold for now.

Even if corporate strategies in the market economy are a matter for companies to decide themselves, the government does have the power to at least not further promote Germany's dependence on China.

At the European level, the Clean Supply Chain Directive hasn't been finalized yet, and it could still be tightened significantly. It could, for example, potentially follow the U.S. model and effectively halt trade in products from Xinjiang for as long as China doesn't provide transparency about the conditions under which they are created.

The investment agreement between China and the EU pushed through by Germany and France at the end of 2020, is now "more or less politically dead" anyway, according to a senior EU diplomat, since both sides imposed sanctions on each other in the dispute over Xinjiang.

These sanctions could be extended to other Chinese officials following the revelations of the Xinjiang Police Files. So far, they have only targeted four mid-ranking leaders and the notorious Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps – extremely reserved choices for sanctions.

For years, there has been talk among Berlin foreign policymakers about the need to coordinate more closely with like-minded partners to address the challenge posed by China. In exactly one month, Berlin will have the opportunity to seize that initiative.

At the end of June, the G-7 countries will meet at Schloss Elmau in Bavaria for their annual summit. "We will make the most of our G-7 presidency to ensure this group of states takes on a pioneering role," Chancellor Scholz said as Germany assumed the role in April, "in the pursuit of climate neutrality and an equitable world." The chancellor should also be measured based on those words.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren
Mehrfachnutzung erkannt
Bitte beachten Sie: Die zeitgleiche Nutzung von SPIEGEL+-Inhalten ist auf ein Gerät beschränkt. Wir behalten uns vor, die Mehrfachnutzung zukünftig technisch zu unterbinden.
Sie möchten SPIEGEL+ auf mehreren Geräten zeitgleich nutzen? Zu unseren Angeboten