Germany’s China Dilemma: Trading with the Frenemy

Written by | Wednesday, December 18th, 2019

Germany can and should do more to support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and condemn the treatment of China’s Uighurs in Xinjiang re-education camps, human rights advocates say, but they also come up with a quick explanation: business interests stand in the way. The pro-democracy movement has been pleading for international support ever since anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong started in June. China’s dismal democracy and human rights records were propelled to a global spotlight also by the recent confirmation of the Communist regime’s systematic internment of Muslim Uighurs.
Hence, not surprisingly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been faced with mounting pressure from human rights advocates and some German politicians who called on her and her government to take a stronger stance on human rights issues in China. And while US President Donald Trump last week inked human rights legislation supporting the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, Chancellor Merkel has been too careful not to explicitly support democratic aspirations of Hong Kong’s people, or condemn the mistreatment of Uighurs.
“There is, on the one hand, the United States, a haven of economic freedom, and on the other, a system in China, which is socially organized in a completely different way, with a pronounced state-owned, and sometimes repressive, character,” said Merkel recently in a speech to the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce, stressing that her country and Europe as a whole find themselves in a global competition with these two other economic powers. For Joshua Wong, a prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, Merkel’s visit to Beijing in September was “disappointing” because the German leader did not “clearly call for free elections in Hong Kong.”
But Merkel’s cautious stance hardly comes as a surprise if one considers the powerful business interests at play, exemplified by the Siemens boss, Joe Kaeser, recently warning Germany against being too critical, and advocated being “thoughtful and respectful” toward China. German industry giant Siemens, along with BASF and VW, operate factories in Xinjiang. “If jobs in Germany depend on how we deal with controversial topics, then we shouldn’t add to indignation, but rather carefully consider all positions and actions,” Kaeser explains. Referring to Germany’s dilemma, Gyde Jensen, an MP and Head of the Human Rights Committee in the German Parliament, the Bundestag, argues that “in the long term, democracy and human rights should be put higher than economic profit, because we see that China is a dictatorship and you never know how economic growth can develop in a dictatorship.”

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