Experts say that political think tanks can influence German foreign policy. Years ago the Friedrich Naumann Foundation was expelled from China and a recent media flap involving Tibetan groups has made matters worse.
Political think tank says it only wants to support peaceful Tibetan exile groups
The Friedrich Naumann Foundation celebrated its 50th birthday on Monday, May 19, in Bonn, where German President Horst Koehler was the keynote speaker.
The well-respected think tank finds itself embroiled in allegations that it is a "front organization for the German foreign ministry in an anti-Chinese Tibet campaign" that have spread like a virus on the Internet.
The allegations involve a Canadian journalist, the former coordinator of Tibetan Affairs in the US State Department and the Potsdam-based political foundation, Friedrich Naumann Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNSt), which is affiliated with Germany's Free Democratic Party (FDP).
A Website called german-foreign-policy.com run by "independent journalists and social scientists" claims that the Naumann Foundation with Washington's blessing had organized a European conference of Tibetan exiles in May 2007 in order to launch an anti-Chinese campaign along the route of the Olympic torch relay before the Beijing games in August.
The Website had based its report on an article by Doug Saunders, a foreign correspondent and columnist for Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, which had made a cursory reference to the Brussels meeting of a Washington-based umbrella group called International Tibet Support Network.
Saunders wrote that the group had hired an organizer for the Olympic disruption campaign, but never wrote the FNSt had been involved.
Role of think tank in Tibet protests spreads like wildfire
Saunders told DW-WORLD.DE that he was not even aware of the Naumann Foundation at the time his article was published in late March. But the problem was that the German Website had then singled out FNSt as the organizer in April and its report was picked up by Xinhua, China's official news agency whose Internet service generates 800 million hits per day, trailing only the BBC and CNN.
Angela Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama last year angered China
Saunders said he wound up becoming both "a victim of a fabrication campaign" that fingered FNSt as well as a "media celebrity in China for his role in 'exposing' a Berlin-Washington conspiracy" spread by Xinhua.
"Xinhua never contacted me to verify the claims made by this German Website, which is not even within the realm of credibility. If the claims were true, it would make a great story," said Saunders.
The Friedrich Naumann foundation acknowledged its presence at the Brussels conference last year, but dismissed the Website's allegations as "rubbish."
"In the first place the FNSt is independent of the German Foreign Ministry. Even the FDP does not get involved in our work," said Bettina Solinger, head of the Asia research division at the publicly funded foundation, which sees its role as promoting democracy and free markets in developing countries, many of which have emerged from totalitarian rule.
Support of peaceful groups
"Furthermore, FNSt's role at the conference was to support the platform taken by peaceful exile groups, not to go in with an anti-Chinese agenda. It was a platform for exchanging views and to keep a dialogue going," said Solinger, who emphasized that the FNSt does not deviate from the German government's "one China policy" and rejects a boycott of the Beijing Olympics.
"What we support is the non-violent approach of the Dalai Lama for real autonomy, meaning that Tibetans are free to keep their own culture and religion alive. The Dalai Lama returning to Lhasa is not the issue here," she said.
"Freiheit" (Freedom) is what the Friedrich Naumann foundation added to its name last year to highlight its aims
However, some German political scientists and China experts have hinted that the foundation's role in China has been more partisan.
Other mainstream political parties such as the ruling coalition's Christian Democrats and Social Democrats have foundations that are very active and effective in promoting Sino-German relations, but FNSt was expelled from China in the mid-1990s for openly supporting the Dalai Lama, according to Eberhard Sandschneider, who is research director and a China expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Out of China
"Friedrich Naumann has a very long record of supporting the Dalai Lama and since they were kicked out, they have been even more active on the Tibet issue," said Sandschneider, who had characterized the foundation as "co-organizers" of the Brussels conference last year.
"The question one should be asking is how much, if any German tax money is involved in this Tibet campaign," he said.
Sandschneider emphasized that FNSt is one of many political foundations which support greater autonomy for Tibet, a group which also includes the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.
"What is lacking is transparency of these organizations in terms of financial backing," he added. FNSt's Solinger stated that the foundation does not finance the activities of any Tibet support groups whatsoever.
Sebastian Bersick, a China expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) who had once been a fellow at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, affiliated with the Social Democrats, said that he knows firsthand that FNSt was shocked at being kicked out of China.
"They must have crossed a line somewhere to elicit such a harsh response from the Chinese government. What was it that made the Chinese react in such a decisive manner? Only FNSt or Chinese officials can really answer that," he said.
The Friedrich Naumann foundation has been accused of being a "front for the German foreign ministry" in staging protests
Traditional role of political foundations in Germany
"For them not being able to work in a country like China can be an impediment to FNSt's global ambitions," added Bersick, who also explained that the traditional role of German political foundations is to bring political discourse into civil society in both Germany and abroad.
"There are historical reasons for the existence of these political foundations. After the war, it became clear that democracy needs to be fostered by keeping the public well-informed about political options," said Bersick.
Solinger added that it was only in the 1960s that the foundations started to work abroad, mostly on development and infrastructural projects, but then later concentrated on the framework necessary for a country's political development, such as democracy, good governance and the rule of law.