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China first, German elections second

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

Taking a swing at China is part of the standard repertoire in the US political campaign. It is now gradually spilling over to Europe. In Germany, political parties are also taking a stand ahead of the Bundestag elections, where the People’s Republic is still a partner or already a “competitor and systemic rival”. The Berlin-based China Research Institute Merics compared the election programs and drew a conclusion: “Unlike previous election campaigns, China is playing a bigger role this time. Almost all parties are taking a critical stance on China.”

Ever since the recent G7 and Nato meetings Beijing’s hopes of being able to once again pit a Europe with a positive stance towards China against the USA are dwindling. The Global Times expressed irritation about the new belief within the CDU that China is “today’s greatest challenge for foreign and security policy.” This stood in strong contrast to more conciliatory signals from the candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet. Last week, in an interview with the Financial Times, he warned of starting a “cold war with China”. Confused, the Global Times wondered which represents the official stance now.

In the past, it was quite different when German politicians competed to see who was more popular in Beijing and with dictator Mao Zedong and hoped it would help them score points in the German election campaign. The diplomat Wang Shu experienced this first hand as an eyewitness. In 1969 he visited Bonn, the then German capital, as a correspondent for Xinhua, and helped to arrange the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972. In 1974, he took a lateral career move to the position of Chinese ambassador after Mao approvingly scribbled “He’s good for it” on one of his analyses of German politics. Wang passed away in Beijing in September 2020. He lived to the age of 95.

The former Chinese ambassador in Bonn, Wang Shu (deceased in September 2020), on his 90th birthday with his wife Yuan Jie

I was allowed to visit the diplomatic doyen at home more than a dozen times after he retired. He often told anecdotes about how German politicians courted China’s favor, laughing boisterously. CSU opposition leader Franz Josef Strauß was the first to succeed in talking to Mao for an hour in January 1975. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt then demanded face-saving equal treatment from Beijing when he visited the government in October 1975. But the 82-year-old Mao was too weak due to his advanced age to schedule a meeting with him in advance. On October 30, 1975, and in the midst of a parley with then-Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping, the redemptive news came for Schmidt. Mao would see him now. Deng and Schmidt then “literally dropped everything” to rush to Mao. Although Mao was barely able to speak, he was mentally capable of conducting the conversation with Schmidt with the help of his assistants.

Even more absurd was what Wang overheard when he sat in Schmidt’s car on the return trip after the meeting, which lasted almost one and three-quarter hours. The Chancellor was not recapitulating his recent exchange with Mao about the world situation, their different views on the Soviet Union, or philosophers and strategists like Kant and Clausewitz. The only thing that mattered to Schmidt was that he cheered when Kurt Gscheidle, the then Federal Minister of Transport, who was also traveling with him, congratulated him: Schmidt’s conversation with Mao had lasted 100 minutes, 20 minutes longer than Mao’s meeting with Strauss.

The next day, while hiking the Great Wall, Schmidt asked Wang how what distance Strauss had reached on the wall. Demonstratively, he then continued to climb: “For me, there is no other choice. I have to get higher.” He then gazed over the landscape with his binoculars and celebrated that he could see no (Helmut) Kohl, “only Chinese cabbage.” In his autobiography, “Mao’s Man in Bonn,” Wang Shu wrote that journalists traveling with him created the headline: “The Bundestag election campaign has begun at the Great Wall.”

Political tourism to Beijing

In Beijing’s embassy in Bonn, the requests of German politicians for trips to China increased. It is said Strauss was the most persistent. Wang suggested a trip in autumn 1974 but Strauss did not want to travel at the same time as CDU opposition leader Helmut Kohl, who had announced his visit for September 1974. So his trip was postponed until January 1975, which now alienated Schmidt. Schmidt wanted to make his inaugural visit to Beijing as chancellor in March or April 1975. “At that time I had my hands full managing the appointments for Strauss and Schmidt in such a way that it would not displease anyone.”

China’s invitation to Soviet Union-Basher Strauss to travel ahead Chancellor Schmidt triggered domestic political controversy in Germany, as it was seen as an affront to the SPD’s eastern politics and détente policy. Strauss later explained what connected him with Peking: Mao had been concerned with containing the Soviet Union. Therefore, Mao supported European unification. Europe’s policy, Strauss argued, should not be oriented only toward the United States, but “must also see a partner in the People’s Republic of China who contributes to maintaining the balance.”

Therefore, Strauss was ready to do go any distance to meet Mao. This happened in a way that is unthinkable today. During his visit to the Great Wall, Strauss, his wife Marianne and two colleagues suddenly disappeared on 16 January 1975. In a time without Internet and mobile phones, neither the journalists nor the German embassy was aware at first. Even Wang remained on the sidelines. Only late at night did the missing CSU leader reappear in his Beijing hotel. He only said: “I was at the Ussuri”.

It was like a coup. Top party officials had unobtrusively intercepted the group of four with Strauss and accompanied them to the airfield, where Deng was already waiting as a fellow passenger. Strauss asked no questions when he heard that Mao wanted to see him.

Only a few years ago, a Chinese chronicle revealed that their destination was the southwestern provincial capital of Changsha, 1,450 kilometers away, where Mao spent the winter in a state guesthouse. Like Strauss, he had other politicians flown in conspiratorially, such as Edward Heath and Henry Kissinger. They all went along with it, promised to keep quiet. By the way: none of the guests even dreamed of asking the dictator about China’s handling of human rights.

Mao and Strauss got along very well

In Strauss’s memoirs “Erinnerungen”, published after his death, he wrote that Mao warned Western Europeans against their “Finlandization” by the Soviet Union. He and Strauss immediately got along great, China’s Chronicle confirmed. Mao was pleased Strauss told him he would also envision a China that was economically and industrially strong in the future as well as keeping the peace. A China which Europe would not have to fear. “Very good,” Mao replied. “You need not fear us.”

People in Europe see things differently today. Those encounters of that time seem like a message from another world and time. The Cold War of the superpowers and Beijing’s fear of the Soviet Union drove China and the West closer to each other. Kohl, Schröder and Merkel followed in the footsteps of Strauss and Schmidt – for both economic interests and calculated reasons.

But today Beijing is taking Moscow’s place. Trying to show off a pro-China stance in the German election campaign is no longer an option.

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