19 September 2019
Pragmatism might dominate current Sino-German relations, but that doesn't necessarily mean Angela Merkel will stop taking a stance on human rights issues in China. Photo: Reuters
Pragmatism might dominate current Sino-German relations, but that doesn't necessarily mean Angela Merkel will stop taking a stance on human rights issues in China. Photo: Reuters

How Sino-German relations differ from Sino-British relations

Almost immediately after President Xi Jinping returned from his state visit to Britain, German Chancellor Angela Merkel led a huge delegation to Beijing on Oct. 29.

Some western media mocked her visit, saying “Germany and Britain are competing with each other to please China”.

To a certain extent, that is true.

Pragmatism does prevail in current Sino-German relations, and the reason is simple: Germany has a lot more economic interests at stake in China than Britain has.

China is the second-largest export market for Germany, and Germany alone accounts for almost half of the European Union’s total exports to China, as compared with only 10 percent from Britain and 9 percent from France.

During her visit last week, Merkel concluded a final agreement with Beijing over the establishment of the China-Europe International Exchange (CEINEX) in Frankfurt, indicating that Germany and Britain are competing fiercely with each other for the leading role in Europe in exploring China’s financial markets.

Yet Sino-German relations were anything but warm during Merkel’s early years in office, when her foreign policy principles were dominated by “values diplomacy”, under which, when Germany was shaping its relations with other countries, economic interests would take a backseat to universal values such as human rights and democracy.

In 2007, Sino-German relations hit an all-time low when Merkel met the Dalai Lama, provoking a severe diplomatic backlash from Beijing.

Since then, Merkel has adjusted her policy toward China and refrains from criticizing Beijing in a high-profile manner for its human rights record.

Some German critics said “values diplomacy” has given way to “silent diplomacy”.

Nevertheless, as some analysts put it, being “silent” doesn’t necessarily mean Berlin agrees with Beijing on human rights issues, nor does it mean Merkel would stop taking a stance on this matter — only that she would do it in a more low-profile way.

For example, before her visit to Beijing last month, Merkel publicly stated that human rights and democracy would be on her agenda when meeting with China’s top leaders, and she did deliver her promise and arrange for a private meeting with several Chinese human rights activists during her visit.

By and large, the German public was happy about Merkel’s visit to Beijing and didn’t think she had “kowtowed” to China, unlike the British government, whose unprecedentedly high-profile and flattering reception of Xi drew widespread criticism from the British public.

In fact, it is apparent that Britain has drawn some insights from the German example when adjusting its policy toward China, under which economic interests have replaced western values as the main theme in their bilateral relations.

However, by doing so, Britain might risk losing its moral leadership in the western world, which is the cornerstone of its global influence.

In contrast, Germany doesn’t have such a problem, because the German people have always been defined by their efficiency and discipline rather than high moral values.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 3.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal