Angela Merkel has made it clear that she will to resign after Germany’s next general election in autumn 2021. By then she will be at the same level as Chancellor Helmut Kohls 16 year reign, which entered the history books to pave the way for German reunification. Merkel wants to leave behind an equally impressive achievement in Germany’s relations with China, which she has visited 12 unprecedented times during her Chancellery, but the chances and actions of the Communist Party of China (CCP) are against her.
It was widely reported that Merkel wanted to leave the political scene with a historic EU-China summit in Leipzig, where she had studied physics at Karl Marx University at the time in the mid-1970s. Merkel had pinned his hopes on the signing of a historic investment treaty that would level the field of European affairs in China. It wasn’t meant to be. In the aftermath of COVID-19, the rally was reduced to a virtual one-day summit.
the televised press conference after the two-hour virtual summit, we provided some remarkable insight into Merkels’ approach to China. In her six-minute statement, Merkel spoke about Hong Kong, minorities and human rights for just 10 seconds. The typically stoic Chancellor was much more spirited when she spoke about the better chances of selling German wine and beer following the EU-China Geographical Indications deal, which took half a minute of her statement.
There is a feeling of déjà vu. In the fall of 1997, Kohl had been in power for 15 years. Experts from the German political spectrum complained of a suffocating intellectual inertia that had beset politics and society in the country after Kohl’s continued reign as German Chancellor. Fast forward to this fall and history repeats itself. Merkel, also in her 15th year, appears to be suffering from a permanent postponement of political change.
Not a day goes by without reports on the CCPs genocide against Uyghurs. This should matter in a country where never again is a common value. Brave Hong Kong democratic movement was removed with the help of a so-called draconian national security law. Chinese President Xi Jinping threatened liberal democratic Taiwan military annexation. And despite clear evidence of authoritarian CCP brutality, Merkel is unwilling to even make cosmetic changes Germany’s mercantilist approach to China.
The problem goes far beyond Merkel. In an interview with Politico in mid-July, German Minister of Economy Peter Altmaier double on Germany, change failed through trade policy saying: I have always been convinced and still believe that change can be achieved through trade. To substantiate his claim, he referred to West Germany’s earlier approach of engagement with Eastern Europe.
That an economically failing Soviet Union could hardly be compared to Chinese state-run supercharged crony capitalism did not seem very important to him. But since Altmaier was previously chief of staff to Merkels, his point of view matters a lot. In the same interview he raise the shoulders criticizes German trade with an increasingly authoritarian China stating: We have trade relations with many parts of the world, including in many cases countries which have a different understanding of civil rights than we have in Germany .
Why is the German government taking so long to abandon Merkels’ failed Chinese policy of change through trade? As far as China is concerned, the German government is largely engaged in promoting foreign trade. Academic studies on the subject suggest that when it comes to foreign trade promotion, the German government has left the private sector initiate, which explains the highly corporatist approach.
This makes it much more difficult to change foreign policy through legislative means, as the German government has essentially outsourced its foreign policy to the private sector. The outsourcing of foreign policy to the private sector has also meant that corporate propaganda has always featured prominently in German public discourse on China. To justify trade and investment with an authoritarian China, corporate lobbyists have for decades hyped the importance of the Chinese market for the traditionally export-oriented German economy.
During their regular visits to China, senior German politicians, including Kohl, former Chancellor Gerhard Schrder and Merkel, provided televised footage of these one-sided narratives. By signing trade and investment agreements during their visits to Beijing, they gave the impression that Germany is heavily dependent on the Chinese market. It’s rather ironic that government statistics reveal that in 2018, China ranked only third (7.1%), after the United States (8.7%) and Europe (68.5%) in Germany’s overall exports. As is often the case, the promise of a largely illusory Chinese market trumps reality.
German media often have amplified such corporate propaganda. I recently discussed this issue with a German media professional. In this conversation, it became clear to me that group thinking contributed to this rather unfortunate practice among journalists. Instead of challenging dominant narratives, journalists too often add uncritical formulations, such as Germany’s largest export market, to their reports on China. As the previously mentioned government statistics show, Europe is by far Germany’s most important export market.
Germany’s outdated Chinese policy will only change if politicians and parliamentarians reaffirm the central role of the state and strengthen both democratic security and industrial policy. Didi Kirsten Tatlow from the German Council on Foreign Relations recently highlighted that Europe can protect its interests by fighting disinformation, verifying and diversifying supply chains, building alliances of trust, filtering foreign investment, clearly labeling sources of propaganda, clamping down on the United Front activity, banning Chinese technology and taking cybersecurity seriously. Following such advice will require political will, which in Berlin today is unfortunately rare.
There is also a need to better regulate corporate lobbying. It is an open secret in German corporate political economy that politics and industry are deeply intertwined. This makes it all the more important to create greater transparency and accountability, for example in the form of a lobby register in the German parliament. If the conglomerates dictate German foreign policy towards China, the public has a right to know its authors.
Academics and journalists should play their part in breaking down both government and corporate propaganda that underlines the importance of the Chinese market to the export-oriented German economy.
And finally, German citizens should take note of the totalitarian turn in Xis China and demand an end China’s policy of change through trade failed.
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