Focus topics

The case for a paradigm shift in German China policy

By Andreas Fulda
Andreas Fulda, lecturer at the University of Nottingham

Reading Eberhard Sandschneider’s Opinion on China.Table, I had a sense of déjà vu. In an article for “Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte” in 2012 – at that time still director of the German Council on Foreign Relations – he had expressed very similar criticism of a values-driven German foreign policy. For transparency, I should mention that I did my doctorate under Sandschneider at the FU Berlin.

The topic of my doctoral thesis, published by Springer VS in 2009, was “Promoting participatory development in the PR China”. Based on my experiences as a practitioner working for German development cooperation (2003-07) I made the case for democracy promotion in the People’s Republic of China. I give Sandschneider great credit for his not only fair but also positive assessment of my dissertation, despite his differing views on German foreign policy. It, therefore, gives me no pleasure to express a fundamental criticism of his opinion piece twelve years later. I formulate my counter-position in the spirit of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “[one] can disagree without being disagreeable”.

Sandschneider’s perspective on Western relations with China shows a curious continuity. While his attitudes towards the premises of German foreign policy have apparently not changed, a totalitarian change of policy has taken place in the People’s Republic of China under General Secretary Xi Jinping since 2012. He is apparently unaware of the resulting tension.

Does all criticism equal ‘China bashing’?

Instead, Sandschneider criticizes “moralizing China policy” as he always has. He also condemns double standards in American and European policy with regards to China, which in his view primarily pursues geopolitical or economic goals. According to Sandschneider, military tensions in the Taiwan Strait can only be blamed on the “foreign policy posturing of a US administration that has almost been dismissed from office”. He also criticizes Western Magnitsky sanctions against Chinese officials. The latter only lead to “clogging” channels of dialogue. At the same time, he advocates “quiet diplomacy”. Sandschneider castigates the supposed “megalomania” of all those who believed they could “manage” the “rise of China”. Surprisingly, he himself later calls “China policy in the West a permanent and lasting management task”. Sandschneider almost always calls any criticism of the political situation in the PRC “China-bashing. Instead, he calls for “talking, negotiating, perhaps arguing with this country and its government to find solutions that are acceptable to all sides”.

His calls for dialogue and cooperation sound plausible at first but completely ignore the political-practical obstacles. During my time as a development aid worker in China, I supported diplomats at the German Embassy in Beijing in organizing and conducting meetings between German decision-makers (including Ambassador Stanzel, 2004; Bundestag President Thierse, 2005; and Foreign Minister Steinmeier, 2006) and Chinese NGO representatives. From 2011 to 2014, I coordinated the implementation of an EU-China dialogue program on behalf of the European Commission. The implementation of such genuinely open-ended intercultural encounters was still possible during the period before and shortly after Xi Jinping took office.

Document No 9: end of the dialogue

However, in 2013, with Document No. 9, the Communist Party of China (CCP) declared constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, independent journalism, and criticism of the party to be absolutely taboo topics, which apply to both domestic and international discussions with China. This document marked the end of the semi-liberal era under General Secretary Hu Jintao (2002-2012). What possibilities are there for fruitful cooperation or dialogue based on mutual recognition and reciprocity when dialogue systematically excludes democratic values, and the language rules of the Xi discourse are binding on the Chinese side?

The Xi regime’s political censorship now permeates all essential areas of Sino-German cooperation: for example, when civil society cooperation is restricted to a few topics that conform to the regime and existing NGO trust networks are systematically undermined or destroyed; when the framework conditions for cooperation endanger the freedom of science and autonomous scientific cooperation; or when the party-state distorts the necessary “level playing field” of economic cooperation based on equal opportunities, reciprocity and mutual benefit to China’s unilateral long-term advantage.

Threat of ‘made in China 2025’

The short-term win-win situation for individual German companies has so far been combined with a long-term one-sided win-lose cooperation in terms of development policy, which has shaken confidence in the promises made by the Chinese party-state. Why should this time be any different? I therefore find it alarming that Sandschneider does not utter a single critical word about the increasing economic dependence of German companies on the Chinese market. German SMEs should be aware that made in China 2025 poses a direct threat to the goal of “Industry 4.0”. The CCP is concerned with first instrumentalizing and co-opting German industry and then replacing it in the long term.

Instead of talking about such challenges in German-Chinese relations, Sandschneider confines himself to comment on the geopolitical rivalry between the US and the PRC. By contrast, I would have expected more (self-)critical reflections on Germany’s China policy from a long-standing advisor to the German government. However, when it comes to the failures on the German side, Sandschneider remains conspicuously silent.

How contemporary, for example, is Germany’s China policy, which is strongly focused on foreign trade promotion? Even as the barricades in Hong Kong were already burning in the summer of 2020, German Economics Minister Altmaier kept repeating the long obsolete slogan “change through trade”. Yet, it should be clear to everyone by now that selling German cars in China has not led to liberal-democratic change.

Primacy of German policy missing

In addition, the primacy of politics has never really applied in Germany’s China policy since 1989. In my active time in the German development bureaucracy, I experienced executives who made extremely disparaging remarks about members of the Bundestag who were traveling to China. It was clear to the practitioners on the ground that China policy was not shaped by German politicians but by representatives of the Asia-Pacific Committee of German Business.

I find it problematic that since Schröder’s chancellorship, Germany’s China policy has been largely determined by the interests of the German private sector. While such a corporatist approach has ensured enormous corporate profits in the short term, it is questionable when business lobbyists dictate the guidelines of German China policy. Even for companies, the benefits in many industries were often temporary before being marginalized in unfair competition. The decline of the German solar industry exemplifies this misguided development.

Staff unit needed in the government

This is certainly not a sustainable and industrial and China policy. I agree with Nils Schmid, the foreign policy spokesman of the SPD parliamentary group, on this issue. In an interview with the Financial Times, he pointed out that Germany needs “a real foreign policy for China – not just a business-oriented policy (author’s translation)”. A new German China policy must critically address the systemic totalitarian tendencies of the Xi regime. To this end, the German government should establish an interdepartmental staff unit for dealing with authoritarian states, which would develop recommendations for action for both the federal and state governments.

Sandschneider’s Opinion on China.Table seems out of date. In his article for APuZ in 2012, Sandschneider still called for “the emergence of a rising foreign policy elite with the necessary competence to deal with new global challenges.” On this point, he is undoubtedly right. For a paradigm shift in Germany’s China policy, we now need not only a new program but also new employees.

Andreas Fulda is a lecturer at the University of Nottingham. He has lived and worked in the PRC and Taiwan for eight years and is the author of “The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Sharp Power and its Discontents” (Routledge, 2020).


    China’s prettiest myth of ‘half the sky’
    Forging prettier numbers
    A big payoff from US-China climate cooperation
    At what point does cooperation lead to complicity?