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No more gifts for Xi Jinping

Germany needs to reorient its foreign and human rights policy toward authoritarian states such as the People’s Republic of China. What has been evident for years has only now become painfully clear to decision-makers thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it is precisely the sale of critical infrastructure and key technologies to the totalitarian regime in Beijing that is preventing the “Zeitenwende” (change of times) proclaimed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. A large part of business and politics is apparently still intoxicated by the prospect of quick gains. This is irresponsible and a gift for the just recrowned communist “emperor” in Beijing.

Germany’s China policy has reached a dead end. Long-held hopes for “change through trade” in the People’s Republic only strengthened autocracy and misanthropy. This has now come back to haunt us. The question now is: Have we learned from this painful process? Will the German government’s much-cited new China strategy depart from the mistakes of the past – or will it merely be a continuation of old misconceptions, with some human rights rhetoric as tinsel?

The polyphony of German and European foreign policy has made Europe and Germany vulnerable. While Beijing deliberately pursues a political “weaponization” of practically all relations and thus seeks to suppress unpopular criticism of its policies – successfully in most cases – human rights policy and foreign policy are stuck in old patterns.

Human rights belong in the human rights dialogue, separate from talks on the economy, trade or competition. In recent years, formats such as the human rights dialogue have in any case grown into ever larger fig leaves for German foreign policy. A condition that is convenient for both sides, but ultimately only to China’s advantage.

German opportunism

The “mainstreaming of human rights” approach has largely been lost. This is not surprising, since it is fundamentally opposed to the postulated triad of “rival, competitor, partner”. This allows European policy maximum flexibility and freedom from obligation when dealing with the regime in Beijing. But what we see as a sign of differentiated foreign policy actually opens the door to opportunism and duplicity. The Communist Party interprets this as a weakness. And unfortunately – it is right. Money first, values second.

German opportunism includes slurs coined by leading foreign policymakers when it came to justifying a toothless human rights policy toward China. There was the term “Schaufensterpolitik” (grandstanding) or the “monstrance” of human rights. When German President Steinmeier now warns against excessive dependence on China, we are looking at one of the former grand architects of this policy. The German president’s change of heart is a welcome one – but does the Chancellor’s office share this view?

Anticipatory human rights policy, especially with regard to the People’s Republic of China, is underdeveloped in Germany. It reacts to big crises, such as the current one in Xinjiang, and is reluctant on Hong Kong and Tibet, which already went unmentioned in the governing coalition agreement. Alternative policy approaches are not considered; threats are ignored. Emerging conflicts are being pushed aside. Large corporations and China experts who are all too sympathetic to Beijing have for far too long dictated what can be said to Beijing. This harmed Germany and Europe – and is no longer acceptable.

We have to change our thinking: The policy of the Chinese Communist Party toward the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, the Mongolians, toward the people of Hong Kong and Chinese human rights advocates is not only important for the security of the people directly affected. It is also relevant for the security of Germany and Europe. After all, the CCP’s domestic policy was and is the harbinger of an aggressive foreign policy that explicitly wants to fight the universal values that we Europeans also represent. This means: If the rights of the Tibetans, the Uyghurs and many others are violated by the Communist Party, then this is relevant to our security in Europe. Our silence is our weakness. Our weakness jeopardizes our safety.

Chancellor Scholz’s trip, on the other hand, comes immediately after the end of the 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. General Secretary Xi Jinping was re-elected for another five years, further consolidating the CCP’s autocratic one-party rule. As a representative of a country committed to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, it should be expected of Olaf Scholz to maintain a distance from those who fight these values. This distance from General Secretary Xi Jinping is not given when the Chancellor pays his respects to him immediately after the coronation mass. This is another gift to the autocrat in Beijing and a bad sign for human rights. We can only hope that the German government’s new China strategy will take a different line. We cannot be too sure. On the contrary. Cosco sends its regards.

Kai Mueller has been Managing Director of the International Campaign for Tibet Germany (ICT) since 2005. A lawyer and social scientist, he served as an honorary board member of the German section of Amnesty International from 2003 to 2005. Until 2005, he was a staff member of a German MP. As an expert, Kai Mueller spoke in the Human Rights Committee of the German Bundestag. The ICT Executive Director also regularly speaks before UN bodies, such as the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

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