Germany-China, what’s behind the dispute over Hong Kong

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AGI – “China is not only close: it is everywhere”, is one of the most popular jokes of these times in Berlin. It is that relations with Beijing increasingly have all the characteristics of the paradox for the federal government. On the one hand the great dragon continues to be a “strategic partner”, as Angela solemnly repeated a little less than a month ago Merkel in front of the MEPs gathered in Brussels, on the other the relationship with Beijing is littered with boulders which is increasingly difficult to remove.

One of these boulders is called Hong Kong. In fact, China reacted with great harshness to Germany’s decision to suspend the extradition agreement, taken after the postponement of the elections decided by the leadership of the former colony. Beijing he has in fact entrusted his embassy in Berlin with a note defining the suspension “a serious violation of international law” as well as a form of interference in China’s “internal affairs”. “We strongly reject” the German provision “and reserve the right to proceed with further reactions”, is the message delivered with disdain to the German government.

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Beijing also shows that it did not like what it defines “erratic externations” of the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, which following the postponement of the vote in Hong Kong had reiterated that Germany expects “Beijing to respect its duties as regards international law”, which also includes the granting of “free and fair” elections in Hong Kong.

Reproaches sent back to the sender: in the embassy’s statement, on the contrary, the decision to postpone the vote in the former British colony because of the coronavirus is defined as “reasonable”, since it would aim to “protect the life and health” of the inhabitants from Hong Kong. ra who continues to reiterate that he does not want to exclude anyone “a priori” from the competition, officially for fear of possible retaliation against German companies. What is more, just two weeks ago Merkel insisted with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, connected by videoconference, for a mutual investment agreement to be concluded within the year, while requesting that “equal opportunities” be offered to Made in Germany.

“Increasing pressure on China”

And then the mutual irritations on the Hong Kong dossier do not seem to arrive at the most opportune moment. The president of the Bundestag Human Rights Commission, the liberal Gyde Jensen, has asked Grosse Koalition “to increase pressure on China”, not excluding the possibility of taking the opportunity of the German semester of the EU presidency to demand sanctions against Chinese leaders . Not only that: Jensen also calls for the cancellation of the summit between the European Union and China, already postponed due to the pandemic.

On the one hand, rights, on the other, the harsh laws of the market: if for Merkel the issue is also geopolitical, so support for China is also an explicit polemical theme against Donald Trump’s America, nobody escapes that Germany remains China’s first European trading partner. Over 44% of total European exports to the ‘Dragon country’ are German, reaching a total value that exceeds 95 billion euros. Moreover, more or less 70% of Chinese imports from Germany belong to four macro-sectors: automotive, instrumental mechanics, electrotechnics and electronics and pharmaceuticals.

A difficult balance

So certainly it is not surprising that, speaking with the Chinese Prime Minister, the insistence on “progress to be made in accessing the market” in the name of multilateralism. A difficult balance: it was Merkel herself who reiterated, before the European Parliament, that relations with China certainly “are characterized by close trade relations”, but also by “very different visions” from the point of view of “respect for human rights and Rule of law. “

Nonetheless, the chancellor repeated, “we intend to continue an open dialogue with China”. And this while the issue of rights represented one of the most difficult points in the negotiations on the Recovery fund, in the sense of an instrument of pressure towards countries such as Hungary and Poland. And then the launch of the new security law by China, a norm that according to Berlin “empties the ‘one country, two systems” which has so far governed the difficult balance between Beijing and Hong Kong which allows endless crackdowns on the opposition in the former colony.

Lightning that inevitably affects the internal German debate, with the Greens and liberals who never miss an opportunity to accuse the chancellor of “subordinating the issue of rights to other interests”. She seems to think otherwise: as Zeit writes, Merkel is convinced of the “Wandel durch Handel” strategy, that is of the “change through trade”, which one of her predecessors, Willy Brandt, applied with conviction towards the USSR, at the time of the “Ostpolitik”.

The charges of greens and liberals

The problem is that even the SPD’s allies do not agree: “The Merkelian idea that China through the commercial plot also approaches the West unfortunately does not seem to come true”, says the head of the Social Democrats for politics foreign, Nils Schmid, “and therefore the time has come for the chancellor to bend to reality”.

Norbert Roettgfen, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag and candidate for leadership of the CDU, the same party as the Chancellor, expressed himself in not very different terms: “The government’s response to Hong Kong is simply insufficient”. And yet a man always loyal to the chancellor, like Foreign Minister Maas, does not hide his skepticism on the Huawei-5G issue. Moreover, last September he had received with great pomp in Berlin Joshua Wong, the activist of the former British colony most unpopular in Beijing. Beijing immediately summoned the German ambassador. Not bad for a “strategic partner”.

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