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EU-China Summit Has Some Germans Rethinking Relations With Beijing

German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosts a video conference with European Council President Charles Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and China's President Xi Jinping, at the Chancellery in Berlin, Sept. 14, 2020.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosts a video conference with European Council President Charles Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and China's President Xi Jinping, at the Chancellery in Berlin, Sept. 14, 2020.

A high-profile virtual summit among Chinese and EU leaders this week has spurred some influential Europeans to rethink their continent’s relationship with Beijing, and especially whether economic considerations have been overemphasized at the expense of human rights.

Monday’s digital get-together — led by Chinese President Xi Jinping and German Chancellor and current EU President Angela Merkel — concluded with several vague commitments to “enhance mutual trust, seek mutual benefits on a win-win basis and uphold multilateralism,” according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

But German politicians and news organizations were asking hard questions about Europe’s relationship with China even before the start of the talks, which had been planned pre-pandemic as a gala affair in the German city of Leipzig. The summit also included European Council President Charles Michel and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“How do we position ourselves towards #China? Is China only a huge market or do we as the EU want to play a role in shaping the world order?” Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag foreign affairs committee, asked in a tweet hours before the meeting began.

“Did Germany get too friendly with China?” headlined a feature story published by Deutsche Welle.

While there is a growing consensus in the United States that the policy of “engagement” with China has largely failed, the question is still intensely debated in Germany. Calls for soul-searching — in some cases even a complete overhaul of status quo — appear to be getting louder.

“There are at least as many German lawmakers, German members of parliament that are strongly supportive of human rights, in particular human rights in China, as you’ll find in the U.S. Congress,” said German Green Party legislator Reinhard Buetikofer, head of the EU’s Delegation for Relations with the People’s Republic of China, in a telephone interview.

Gyde Jensen, representing Germany’s northernmost region in the Bundestag, is just such a lawmaker. Considered a rising star, the 31-year-old chair of the parliament’s human rights committee proudly pins a photo of herself with a Hong Kong activist on her Twitter account and believes Germany should keep Huawei out in its 5G plans.

Prominent members of the academic community have lent their voices to the cause.

“German governments, both past and present, have consistently prioritized trade with China over other enlightened German national interests, for example democracy and human rights,” said Andreas Fulda, a German social and political scientist who launched a petition in May calling for a reappraisal.

For too long, foreign trade promotion has topped Germany’s policy configurations toward China, Fulda said in an email interview. Corporate voices have been over-amplified in public discourse while “for decades hyp[ing] the significance of the Chinese market” in order to justify trade and investment “with an authoritarian China.”

China, for its part, likes to remind Europeans of the economic advantages of the relationship. Ahead of Monday’s meeting, Beijing conspicuously announced that the German auto industry continued to reap profits in China, while business interests elsewhere have been pummeled by the coronavirus pandemic.

“German car giants increased their sales in China, with Mercedes-Benz seeing a 21.6 percent increase in the second quarter compared with the same period last year, even as its sales in Europe dropped by 31.5 percent during the first half of the year,” said a September 9 article published in the Global Times, an arm of Chinese state media.

Germany, for its part, declared China as its top single-country export destination in the second quarter of this year, surpassing the United States.

Some Chinese netizens suggested that Beijing’s increased purchases from Germany were part of a strategic move to secure Berlin’s friendship. Otherwise, one wrote, European nations “would all follow the footsteps of the Czech Senate leader” who recently led a delegation to Taiwan.

Senate President Miloš Vystrčil led an 89-member Czech delegation to Taipei on a trip described as honoring the spirit of Vaclav Havel, the first democratically elected Czech president following the disintegration of the Soviet bloc 30 years ago.

“My view is that if we focus on money, we will lose [both] our values and money,” Vystrčil said prior to embarking on the journey.