Germany Cozying up to Beijing

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Angela Merkel and half her cabinet are in the Chinese capital for the kind of government consultations that Germany only has with a handful of democratic countries. Dagmar Engel reports.

“I just say what I want.” With this simple statement, the German chancellor got an entire roomful of press people laughing – but in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, such a sentence is anything but banal.

The Chinese government continues to suppress freedom of opinion and freedom of the press, while an army of censors monitors social media. Numerous foreign news websites are blocked in China, including that of DW.

That Merkel quotation has been taken somewhat out of context. China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, created confusion: Because a question about how the conflict in the South China Sea was being handled got under his skin, he answered it, even though it was directed at Angela Merkel.

Angela Merkel and Li KeqiangMerkel came a long way to talk

His answer followed government lines: China is in the right with its claims to the islands, arguments should be solved bilaterally, and all other parties, especially the United States, should stay out of it.

It was something of a sensation, then, when the common final resolution stated that China recognizes the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, with its accompanying shipping and flyover rights. In recent days, there have twice been incidents involving American and Chinese fighter jets.

One small step forward …

Non-interference is one of the basic principles of Chinese foreign policy – and that goes in both directions. China’s involvement during the negotiation of the nuclear agreement with Iran was already one instance where the government could be seen veering from it.

The plan to start a trilateral project together with Germany in Afghanistan focusing on disaster prevention and the training of miners sounds like another small step. But for China, it is a step in a new direction.

…and one step back

One step in the old direction is the so-called NGO law. Starting next year, China is putting non-government organizations under police control. At the same time, they have to make their financing and their Chinese contacts public.

Following her first talks with Li Keqiang, Merkel said that what has been agreed now is a “sort of early warning system, with contact via the foreign ministries.” In the common resolution, both parties welcomed the “lawful work of foreign NGOs.”

Insiders from the delegation said that the word ” lawful” had to be included for the topic to even make it into the resolution. The only power that counts in China is the Communist Party, and that has very little to do with the “rule of law” that Merkel spoke of many times during her visit.

Investment continues despite concerns

Legal uncertainty is one of the problems that German companies mention time and again when it comes to investing in China, along with concerns about intellectual property theft and lack of free market access. China has been promising to deliver on that account for years, though it has little to show for it.

Despite this, Germany continues to do business in China: The contracts agreed for the government consultations have a total volume of 2.73 billion euros. A contract from Airbus for the assembly of 100 helicopters in China is worth 1 billion euros alone. Daimler is investing half a million euros in a factory to produce motors.

As real as the concerns of industry may be, Germany continues to show huge interest in this massive market. The reverse is also true: China wants to be part of Germany’s push for “Industry 4.0” – the application of automation and information technology to manufacturing.

Say what you want: The next government consultations between Germany and China have already been announced. They will take place in 2018, in Berlin.

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