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The indirect countdown for German-Chinese ties

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

Exactly 50 years ago, in the penultimate week of July 1972, Bonn and Beijing began to establish diplomatic relations. But not in a very straightforward way. And that was no accident. One of the people behind it was an opposition politician from the CDU and, on the Chinese side, a Xinhua journalist in Bonn. The unusual actors jumped over their shadows and, just eleven weeks later, the Federal Republic and the People’s Republic sealed their new relationship with an official document. It is also called the shortest communiqué in China’s diplomatic history.

Wang Shu (王殊) head of the news agency Xinhua (New China) office in Bonn, showed no sign of his nervousness. His meeting with CDU politician Gerhard Schroeder – not to be confused with his namesake from Lower Saxony and later German chancellor – had already lasted more than three hours. But the one phrase he was waiting for did not pass his interlocutor’s lips.

The initiator: Journalist Wang Shu, who became ambassador to Bonn in 1974, and his wife Yuan Jie enjoy their favorite dish (homemade jiaozi) on Wang’s 90th birthday in 2014. Wang passed away in Beijing in 2020.

It was February 21, 1972, and an SPD-FDP coalition was governing the Federal Republic. Opposition man Schröder, who had once served as Foreign and Minister of Defense for the CDU/CSU, was presiding over the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “We talked about the global situation,” Wang recalled. “But all I could think was, ‘When is he going to ask me?’ It was already getting dark outside.” Eventually, he dropped all politeness. “I interrupted Schröder. Would he be interested in visiting China in the near future?” His counterpart immediately responded, “Very much so, and if possible during this summer break.”

When Wang told me the anecdote 25 years later in 1997, he shook with laughter and still pretended to be indignant: “Was that a waste of time! And only because Schroeder was too posh to ask first.”

Wang’s task was to find out whether an invitation to Schroeder would bring China closer to its goal of establishing diplomatic relations with Germany. Actually, Schroeder was not the right man since belonged to the opposition. The SPD-FDP coalition led by Willy Brandt, however, kept a low profile regarding contacts with China in order not to burden its “New Eastern Policy” of reconciliation with Moscow and East Berlin.

Beijing’s policy of fiercely attacking Moscow and playing rapprochement ping-pong with the United States sparked fantasies within the CDU/CSU to play the “China card”. Wang reported this back home. He particularly praised Schroeder. Wang told his superiors that he, as an old-school diplomat and ex-foreign minister, was competent and, as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, bipartisan enough to avoid upsetting the incumbent government if China invited him.

Wang established contact. He had no idea that Schroeder was also thinking about how to get an invitation. His wife Brigitte wrote in their memoirs, “Mission ohne Auftrag,” (Mission without task) published in 1988: “We will definitely go to China, my husband told me one day in January 1972.” No German politician had ever visited China before.

It was not until 16 years later that Gerhard Schroeder (CDU) wrote about his 1972 Beijing travel coup, with which he and China’s Wang Shu set up the countdown to the establishment of Sino-German diplomatic relations. Co-authors of the memoir “Mission ohne Auftrag” (Gustav Lübbe, 1988) are his wife Brigitte and Wang Shu.

Five months later, on July 19, the couple sat face to face with Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing. As Wang had hoped, Schroeder had informed Chancellor Brandt and Foreign Minister Scheel before the trip, and also obtained their approval for his confidential memorandum, which he intended to use as a blueprint for upcoming official negotiations. Zhou approved the draft. Schroeder and Vice Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua signed it on July 20.

Thus began the countdown to the establishment of diplomatic ties, which led to the official treaty after 40 days and eight rounds of negotiations. On October 11, 1972, Foreign Minister Walter Scheel, who had traveled to Beijing, initialed it for the SPD-FDP coalition. Diplomat Luo Guowen 罗国文 calls the agreement “China’s Shortest Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations” (中德之间) in his new two-volume book, “Zwischen China und Deutschland” (Between China and Germany) (最短的建交公报).

It consists of only one sentence: “The Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany decided on October 11, 1972, to establish diplomatic relations and to exchange ambassadors within a short period of time.” The communiqué makes no mention of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” nor the “One-China principle” regarding the Taiwan question. But neither was there a word on the Berlin issue. But Peking accepted Bonn’s claim to represent Berlin. It only agreed to a pragmatic solution. China had agreed to a text read aloud by the German side, according to which Bonn would represent West Berlin. Bonn was allowed to officially declare this exact statement.

On July 20, 1972, Gerhard Schroeder (CDU) and Vice Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua signed the first joint declaration of intent to soon establish diplomatic ties in Beijing. It happened as quickly as it was uncomplicated that a missing “r” in Schroeder’s name had to be added to the German version afterward.

Decades later, Scheel paid tribute to Wang Shu and Schroeder’s role as initiators: “Relations with China? We had to think about that very carefully. The fact that China chose Schroeder as an icebreaker was a good move: Before his trip, we had an extensive conversation with him. After his return, he visited me at my resort in Austria to talk about his impressions.”

Behind the haste and the simple procedure, there was – as we know today – also calculation, by Premier Zhou Enlai on behalf of Mao Zedong. After the admission of the People’s Republic to the UN in 1971 and after the spectacular visit of US President Nixon to Beijing in February 1972, the Chairman brooded over further liberalization to escape the Soviet menace. Mao’s motto was, “To the east, we open to Japan, to the west to Germany.” In September, Beijing and Tokyo established ties, and in October, it was Bonn’s turn.

Zhou urged Schroeder to do everything possible to ensure that Beijing could reach an agreement with Bonn on diplomatic relations before the federal election at the end of 1972. “For our countries, there is no question of normalization, but simply of establishing diplomatic relations.” He said this was different from the situation with Japan and did not touch on the Taiwan issue. For them, “it was crucial that Germany never had relations with Chiang Kai-shek. Adenauer is to thank for that.”

Today, the 70-page transcripts of Schroeder’s negotiations with Beijing are publicly available. They show how China’s diplomats persuaded him not to trust the Soviet Union: “We like to use a word for them that they are very angry about: the new czars,” Qiao said. They “don’t abide by any treaties.” Drastically, Zhou warned of Moscow’s “never-ending lust for expansion.” Beijing had “the impression that the current US administration understood this” China was prepared in case the Soviets moved against the East. But would Europe be if it went against the West? If “a false sense of security were to spread there in the wake of the ratification of the East treaties and the Berlin agreement, that would be very dangerous.” Zhou: “I’m telling you this because your party understands it, and don’t tell your government this because the SPD doesn’t understand it.”

How times change after 50 years. Today, Beijing under Xi Jinping’s leadership defends Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. While SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote in a guest article for the German daily FAZ on July 17: “Putin’s way of dealing with Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe bears neo-colonial features. Quite openly, he dreams of building a new empire based on the model of the Soviet Union or the Tsarist Empire.” And in his government declaration, he promises: Germany would have to align its “China policy with the China we find in reality”.

After 50 years – time to remember: In two volumes “Between China and Germany” (Weltwissen-Verlag 2020), diplomat and Germany expert Luo Guowen reveals on 745 pages how diplomatic relations were established and draws his conclusion.

For journalist Wang Shu, who had worked as a correspondent in Asia and Africa for 20 years and only spoke a little English and French, everything was new when he was sent to Germany at the end of 1969. His advantage was that “I arrived without fixed opinions or ideological prejudices.” But that was also dangerous, under the suspicious eyes of his editors back home and in a poisoned domestic political atmosphere full of intrigue. When Wang told me this, his wife Yuan Jie interrupted us, “I was scared to death at the time”.

Unbeknownst to Wang, however, he had a powerful protector in Mao. He even scribbled on one of Wang’s reports, “He’s suitable as ambassador,” which Wang indeed became in Bonn in 1974. After the bloody border skirmish with the Soviet Union in 1969, the Chairman was contemplating the changed global situation, which had forced China to open up to the West. Wang’s reports came just in time then.

China knew more about the Germans than vice versa. In 1972, the Germans arrived in a country badly scarred by the Cultural Revolution. An unintentionally comical gaffe ensued. For his farewell banquet in October in the Great Hall of the People, Foreign Minister Scheel had flown in delicacies from Germany. The proud chef greeted all guests and wanted to know how they enjoyed the food, diplomat Luo recalls. However, with his white chef’s hat, he startled the Chinese guests, including high-ranking officials. It reminded them of the “high hats” the Red Guards once forced onto them. Luo uses a German word to describe the feeling in the Hall of the People at the time. He puts it in parentheses (shock).

It did not harm the ever rapidly developing ties.

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