Merkel & China: moment of truth

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07/09/2020_ In the complex, interdependent world of today, two issues have emerged as the major challenge for the EU in the coming months/year(s):

  1. the (economic/medical) fall-out of the Corona-virus pandemic
  2. the rise of communist China

Without downplaying other urgent topics (like the Syria conflict, refugee crisis, Russian destabilization, climate change etc), these 2 do stand out.

As to the Corona-pandemic, the overall economic impact remains to be seen, while a second wave of the virus can not be excluded. Covid-19 will keep Europe and the world in its grip for months if not years to come. It has gained wide media-attention as it affects everybody’s daily life and livelihood. Political and medical debates on how best to cope with the virus and its aftermath will remain intense and continue to be covered by the media.

The rise of China

How the rise of China has impacted people’s daily lives was perhaps less tangible for Europe’s citizens until the Corona outbreak. There obviously had been a general awareness of China as big export market and a manufacturing hub, as a producer of cheap and quality consumer products and electronics. The PRC had turned into a favorite tourist destination too. But with the Corona pandemic has come a stronger realization that the rise of and interdependence with China is impacting our daily lives and even challenging the existing world order as we know it.

The PRC has been very proactive in telling the world it has handled the pandemic better than the West. That story fits well into the narrative propagated by Chairman Xi Jinping since he gained power in 2012, after which he has started to present China’s authoritarian development model as an alternative to the liberal democratic model. China first! The Corona crisis has also exposed Europe’s overreliance on China for medical supplies. At the same time it gave China the chance to showcase itself as a generous donor of medical equipment and materials to desperate European member states and the US, scoring major points in the propaganda war with Trump’s America first.

Europe’s recovery

Europe’s economic recovery from the pandemic will heavily rely on the US and China. With the US still in disarray due to Covid-19 spinning out of control, European government leaders will feel pressured to restore business with China as soon as possible. China is Europe’s second largest trading partner after the US. Germany alone accounts for about one third of China’s trade with the EU. European leaders have been preoccupied to conclude a comprehensive EU-China investment agreement this year targetting reforms in China towards further liberalising its economy, reducing the role of the state-owned sector, and creating a level-playing field for European business, opening new market opportunities.

For many years, in European electorates, China policy has never been an election issue. For Merkel, Macron as for Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, with respect to China it has always been “business first”. They never bothered to formulate a coherent European strategy on how to deal with the rise of China and the American-Chinese rivalry or to explain their citizens the implications of communist China’s emergence.

The absence of any political debate and strategy facilitated in some cases an overreliance on China in trade. Moroever, the resulting dependency in certain critical areas/goods such as medical supplies and telecom went largely unnoticed (refer 5G Huawei soap , widely covered in this website since the begin of 2019), as European companies and authorities were pre-dominantly driven by economic self-interest, not by concerns or questions over national or European security or strategic positioning.

EU Commission of Foreign Affairs

In Spring 2019 the European Commission’s Foreign Affairs and Security High Representative published a report admonishing European leaders to “no longer regard China as a developing country. It is a key global actor and leading technological power. Its increasing presence in the world, including in Europe, should be accompanied by greater responsibilities for upholding the rules-based international order, as well as greater reciprocity, non-discrimination, and openness of its system. China’s publicly stated reform ambitions should translate into policies or actions commensurate with its role and responsibility.” China, concluded the report, had evolved into the EU’s partner, competitor, and systemic rival at the same time, requiring a new, tailormade strategy and a mindset change among the European political leadership.

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Despite this report, the EU did not manage to shape an uniform China strategy during 2019. One of the main reasons was Germany/Merkel’s reluctance to take a leading role. Germany’s export reliance on China has been limiting her room for manoeuvring, especially in light of Germany’s quickly deteriorating relationship with Trump’s America. German restraint in (openly) discussing or addressing concerns about negative political developments in China are best symbolized by the statements of Joe Kaeser, the CEO of industrial giant Siemens, following Merkel’s trip to China last September, warning Germany against taking too critical a stance towards Beijing. Kaeser instead advocated being “thoughtful and respectful” towards China because “if jobs in Germany depend on how we deal with controversial topics, then we shouldn’t add to indignation, but rather carefully consider all positions and actions,” Kaeser told German daily Die Welt.

Compare the above to his reaction to yet another derogatory tweet by Mr. Trump on the four female Democratic congresswomen, the so-called Squad, in the US in 2019: “I find it depressing that the most important political office in the world is turning into the face of racism and exclusion,” twittered the same Joe Kaeser. The CEO of Siemens -like many other European businessmen dealing with China- has been engaging in too much respect and restraint or should we say self-censorship towards China out of fear for retaliation by Beijing, while apparently not being afraid at all of speaking out his mind about a sitting American President.

Double Standards

We have seen this self censorship and double standard constantly among European politicians and business people, as well as universities and governmental organizations in their dealings with China. “Wandel durch handel (change through trade)” has been Germany’s adagio in its ties with China, a belief apparently still adhered to by many in Europe. Trade would lead the way to political reform in China. Unfortunately the conclusion should be Chairman Xi has long dashed those hopes, in particular after he appointed himself President for life and made it his mission to build the most sophisticated , authoritarian and unprecedented communist state in history, aiming for dominance in economy, defense, science and technology. Fear of Chinese reprisals has meanwhile permeated and sometimes even stiffled Europe’s public, open debate about our concerns, policy and position in the relationship with China.

In the past month we have seen European football clubs, prominent artists and sportsmen, enterprises and politicians siding with the Black Lives Matters Movement in the USA following the horrifying death of George Floyd. The protesters in Hong Kong who risked their livelihood and personal safety for over a year to protect democracy in Hong Kong have waited in vain for similar attention or empathy. Same for those 1 million Uighurs in “re-education camps” in China. We have not seen any comment/tweet from the Siemens CEO on July 1 2020, when China effectively killed the one country two systems model for Hong Kong, by introducing a strangling national security law.*** This law is in complete violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997, guaranteeing the two system approach for at least 50 years.

What followed was yet another lame EU statement expressing concern about China’s action in Hong Kong, without any further follow up despite this blatant breach of the 1997 Joint Declaration. But this national security law should serve as another wake-up call for European politicians and entrepreneurs to re-study and re-evaluate their engagements with China and discuss openly how to steer this relationship into the future.

Xi Jinping and his vassals

Some might argue China is entitled to introduce such a national security law, just as Western countries have introduced their own versions over the years. And some might say we should await how the Chinese government will implement and execute the new law. But those who have read and seen the scope of this law understand it has already accomplished its very first goal: to install fear of reprisal among those people of Hong Kong who dared to speak out against the regime in Beijing. Next it will gradually yet completely erode the seperation of powers in Hong Kong. For Xi there is/counts only one country and one system, communist China, and woe the one who offends the People’s Republic! China first, hurrah!

Chinese ambassadors have been overactive in the past year to also install fear of reprisals among European politicians and business leaders in all European capitals: these Chinese officials have repeatedly warned Europeans their countries/economies would face severe repercussions if their governments would dare to ban Huawei from the 5G network or “interfere in Chinese domestic affairs”. In short, these threats are not isolated incidents, but form an operational pattern sanctioned by the top of the communist party, by our dear Chairman Xi. Without China Europe is doomed, seems to be the message from Beijing.

Xi Jinping’s rule could be described as a reign of fear, domestically and internationally. Domestic political opponents have been brutally silenced. Overseas Uighurs who protest against Xi’s violent policies in Xinjiang do receive threatening phonecalls from local Chinese embassy personnel. Foreign newspapers critical of China get warnings or journalists lose their license. Bookstore keepers in Hong Kong selling books critical of the CCP have been kidnapped and disappeared into mainland Chinese prisons. Overseas Chinese students are monitored by their embassies and Chinese student associations to make sure their behavior is patriotic. European labs and universities with ties to Chinese institutes and relying on Chinese funding for their research projects have been subtly instructed what to avoid or leave untouched in their research: yes, even the European academic world is practising self-censorship out of fear of losing Chinese funding…!

The list could go on and on…fear, fear, fear…

Germany’s EU presidency

Starting from July 1 2020, Germany has taken on the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. It is Merkel’s last chance to form an united European economical, geopolitical and political strategy towards China, taking into account the 3 roles the PRC does play for Europe. Yes, the EU should maintain the dialogue with China, as she has been reminding us numerous times, and try to keep the PRC inside the current international economic order, a de-coupling is in nobody’s interest. The European goal or ambition shouldn’t be to thwart China’s economic and industrial growth by default, which seems to be the agenda of at least part of the American political establishment. Yet as stated many times on this website, the EU should clearly define and articulate what it wants to protect in terms of core values in the relationship and exchange with China and clarify how it wants to position itself in the quickly escalating American-Chinese rivalry, which will not disappear if Trump will not be re-elected. And the EU should stand up for these core values.

This means the EU should no longer tolerate to be publicly bullied by Chairman Xi and his disciples. The Union should stop implying it’s a defenseless victim of whatever Xi decides as if the EU has no clout whatsoever. A healthy relationship with China should not be based on fear about what Europe could lose. The economic dependency between the EU and China runs in both directions. Merkel and her fellow European leaders should start to point out to China, the European business community and the electorate what the EU must defend in the exchange with the Chinese and what China will lose if it continues the path Xi has taken. Unlike what the CCP and some European political and business leaders want us to believe, not the whole world is revolving around China yet.

China’s vulnerabilities

China has a lot of vulnerabilities, but we never hear European politicians or business leaders mention them. Without American and European technology, Chinese high-tech industry will not reach the ambitious goals Xi has set. Without Hong Kong as a financial centre, China won’t get the Western investments it needs. Without access to Western universities, China won’t obtain the know-how it requires to further develop its economy and society. China has a lot to lose.

An European appeal for more responsible Chinese governmental behavior should be linked to clear, unambiguous messaging. Merkel should tell Chairman Xi upfront, without such a responsible attitude, it is China in the end that will lose out, not Europe. Moreover, Europe should voice criticism of violations of legal principles – refer the recent action of the Chinese government in Hong Kong – or universal values if it is ready to follow through with real action. The EU’s official responses sofar have been too weak and ambivalent. At least the European Parliament has suggested to take China to the international Court of Justice because of its violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Though Beijing will surely reject any involvement of the Court, it does send a clear signal the new law is totally unacceptable to Europe. It will also serve as a sign of support for those millions of (young) protesters who have mostly peacefully expressed their grave concern over Hong Kong’s quickly diminishing liberties.

Merkel’s moment of truth

Europe’s voice does matter, and Merkel, who grew up in communist Eastern Germany, and is often praised as the real leader of the free world, should know as no other. The scheduled EU-China summit for September 2020 was postponed till later this year as per her request, officially due to the Corona pandemic. Probably she hopes the US is going to have a different President in the meantime. The delay also gives Merkel (again) the chance to finally build a common, united European stance towards China. It will be her last chance to have Xi take the EU serious instead of offering him a new opportunity to divide and rule. It should no longer be business (first) as usual.

The delay also enables European politicians to seek alliances across the oceans with likeminded, concerned politicians in other countries to put pressure on their governments regarding the China policy. Despite the fact that Trump has been a complete disaster for transatlantic relations, we have seen some signs of a rapprochement between the US and the EU over the past weeks. As I wrote in an earlier post, behind the scenes talks between European and American officials have likely been on-going on the China issue regardless of all the noise coming from the White House. It has f.e. resulted in a joint publication by the Center on U.S.- China Relations, the Bertelsmann Stiftung, and the George Washington University China Policy Program that brought together 43 top China experts from both the U.S. and Europe, delving into seven major areas: 1) trade & investment concerns; 2) the China technology challenge; 3) dealing with the Belt & Road; 4) human rights in China; 5) China’s influence activities; 6) China and global governance; and 7) challenges in the security arena. It was followed by Pompeo’s acceptance of an EU offer for a EU-USA dialogue on China, which the Trump administration had initially rejected.


Another encouraging sign is the creation of IPAC, the interparliamentary alliance on China, an international cross-party group of legislators from all over the world working towards a revised and coordinated approach on how democratic countries should deal with China. It shows the Chinese leadership democratically chosen politicians from different political backgrounds and countries can and will unite when confronted by a non-democratic, belligerent bully. IPAC is committed to construct appropriate and coordinated responses in the legislative bodies of the respective member countries to inappropriate, illegal Chinese actions. It is currently campaigning that no one has to face extradition to Hong Kong, where the rule of law has been severely compromised. Canada has already agreed to suspend its extradition agreement. Australia, Czechia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the US all have similar extradition agreements: the IPAC legislators representing these countries are urgently seeking assurances from their respective governments that no such extraditions will take place and that existing treaties with Hong Kong will be reviewed.

China’s choice

Above are just a few examples what real action democratic politicians can take to signal Xi Jinping China has crossed red lines. No action is no longer an option. What the CCP decides to do is of course up to Beijing. It is Xi’s choice to either adjust or stick to his detrimental and confrontational policies, to be responsible or continue to be irresponsible with his China first approach, which in a worst case scenario could bring about a de-coupling of the economies of the PRC and the democratic world.

Via dialogue and coordinated pressure hopefully the Chinese leadership will realize it’s on the wrong track. As said before, the economic dependency runs in both ways. But hope should no longer be Europe’s guiding principle, wandel durch handel is a naive illusion as long as Xi is in power. The EU should implement stronger measures to safeguard its national security, while continuing the dialogue with China.

Strategically sensitive technology and knowledge should no longer be made easily accessible to China, especially since the reverse has never been the case. European universities and research labs should not be dependent on the influx of Chinese students for their finances or on Chinese money for their fundamental research projects. Perhaps universities in all European member states should also start thinking about setting quota for allowing Chinese students in order to have a better overview of who is joining and avoid financial dependency.

I am not saying Europe should treat all Chinese as spies or consider them as a weak-willed mass without any individuality or opinion. But a smaller number of students would enable better screening and a more interactive exchange and critical debate. These debates should be encouraged and not avoided in European universities, this is what academic freedom is all about. Activities of the Chinese overseas student associations, which have been created by the Chinese government, are normally organized in close consultation with local Chinese embassies: European universities better be aware Chairman Xi has been actively targetting Chinese students as instruments of public diplomacy. In response European universities could consider to introduce mandatory side-courses for all foreign students to learn more about the history and growth of democracy in the country in which they follow their overseas studies…

Confucian Institutes

The so-called Confucian Institutes which the Chinese government has set up around Europe and the globe to promote Chinese culture and language and to stimulate joint research with universities should be treated with caution. These Institutes are mostly tools and extensions of the Chinese communist state and completely at odds with the independence of European knowledge institutes and with the European values of academic integrity. Joint research projects in which European researchers stationed in China feel forced to continuously practice self censorship or avoid sensitive topics due to Chinese pressure, should be reconsidered and perhaps be stopped or abandoned if valuable, objective scientific results are no longer feasible.

In other words, there are many ways in which Europe can gets its message across to Chairman Xi while the dialogue with Beijing is kept alive. But crucial will be the voice of Angela Merkel, her moment of truth will soon arrive.

“To see what is right and not to do it is want of courage” is what Confucius is supposed to have said. How could Merkel show more respect to China than by sticking to Confucius’ advise? Let’s hope the German Chancellor will rise to the challenge…

PS: *** the new national security law pushed through by Beijing for Hong Kong targets “acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces”, with a maximum sentence of life in prison. This legislation has been adopted with minimal consent even of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council representatives, while the chief executive Carrie Lam was not aware of its exact contents till after its release. It’s reminiscent of colonial laws adopted to maintain order in unruly territories. Judicial independence has been a cornerstone of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s legal system and was guaranteed by Article 85 of the original Basic Law, which states: “The courts of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall exercise judicial power independently, free from any interference.”

The new national security law reneges on that guarantee. It states that, along with the executive and the legislature, the “judiciary of the Region shall effectively prevent, suppress and impose punishment for any act or activity endangering national security in accordance with this law and other relevant laws” (Article 3).

For these national security cases the chief executive will designate judges at all court levels, –from magistrates to justices of the Court of Final Appeal-, not the judges themselves. The most striking feature of the new law is that it criminalises expressive behaviour that is not in any way violent: f.e. waving an American flag could now be considered a crime. The sections on secession and subversion are the key provisions: any protestor will risk life in prison.

Importantly, Beijing will have power over how the new law should be interpreted, not any Hong Kong judicial or policy body. If the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the security law takes priority. Beijing will also establish a new security office in Hong Kong, with its own law enforcement personnel – neither of which would come under the local authority’s jurisdiction. People could be easily deported to China.

In short, this new law effectively curtails protest and freedom of speech. And Beijing not only seems to target people in Hong Kong: the law will also apply to non-permanent residents and people “from outside [Hong Kong]… who are not permanent residents of Hong Kong” Yeah, it apparently applies to the whole planet! You’d better be aware next time you plan a holiday/business-trip to Hong Kong or China!