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Sieren's China: Helmut Schmidt, Mao & Co

No other German politician followed China's transition to becoming a world power as early on, for as long, or with such personal interest as Helmut Schmidt, says DW's Frank Sieren.

Helmut Schmidt was always curious about the changes in China. His personal interest in the country and its 1.4 billion people never ceased. Just a few weeks ago, he was still asking questions about the new China. Nobody would have held it against him if at the age of 96 he had mulled over his experiences with Mao & Co, but Schmidt believed it was important to rethink his impressions of China over and over again. His interest in the country dated back to the 1950s.

At the end of the 60s and in the early 70s, he traveled around China as defense minister. At the time, it was not acceptable for Western politicians to simply travel directly to Beijing. He was chancellor when he met Mao Zedong in 1975. He needed few words to describe the Chinese leader in a differentiated way: "He was one of those men who you don't forget. Extraordinarily impulsive. Charismatic, very talented. But reckless and stubborn. Half-educated, with a good intuition. Mao was clever, but reason was not his forte. The great campaigns that he launched did not develop from a sound mind."

China was Schmidt's most important foreign policy interest

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China

DW columnist Frank Sieren

After Mao's death, Schmidt won the confidence of the great reformer Deng Xiaoping. The two spoke about economic reforms in the 1980s. Even when Schmidt was no longer chancellor, China remained his most important hobby horse in matters of foreign policy. He discussed the perils of opening up economically in detail with the high-ranking politician Zhao Ziyang, who was general secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1987 to 1989. They talked about how a country that has just opened up should not buy more than it sells to the world and that in such a transition phase it is dangerous to simply print money unrestrictedly.

The discussions did not help much. In the second half of the 1980s, China accumulated a huge trade deficit and inflation rose by 30 percent. In 1989, people went out onto the streets, calling for less corruption and more freedom. Deng Xiaoping ordered a bloody crackdown on June 4. "I observed this with great surprise and great regret," Schmidt later said.

1989: Hardliners take over

Now, the hardliners were at the helm. Deng the "reformer" had lost influence. In May 1990, 10 months after the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square, Schmidt became the first European politician to resume dialogue with China. The former chancellor met Deng Xiaoping for a private discussion. He wanted to strengthen the reformers and reforms in China. As he said at the time to US President George Bush Sr., for whom he had a lot of respect, this was best done "by integrating China back into the global economy."

In July, 1989, Bush sent his security adviser Brent Scowcroft to Beijing on a secret trip. At the beginning of December, he sent him and the deputy secretary of state Lawrence S. Eagleburger on an official trip to China. At a time when the Soviet Union was teetering, it was important that China remain stable and reform-orientated. In 1992, Deng was able to put China back on the course of reform and opening. This was possible because he was able to persuade the army of the necessity of economic reforms during his South China tour. Schmidt was relieved.

Did Schmidt ignore the victims?

Until recently, Schmidt was accused of busying himself with the big political eras in China but not with the system's victims. His answer to his critics was: "For human rights in my own country I would go to the barricades if necessary, but I do not have the right to give other people in other countries public advice on how they should attain human rights." Until the end, Schmidt said that foreign policy should not be "linked to values" but "based on peace".

With Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, who implemented economic reforms in the 1990s, he talked mainly about economic questions, as well as about Confucianism, a godless religion that fascinated him throughout his life. Schmidt developed a personal friendship with Zhu and last met him in 2012 when he made his last trip to Beijing.

Contact with China's top politicians over decades

Last year, China's current head of state Xi Jinping asked to meet Schmidt when he was in Germany. So Schmidt was in direct contact with top Chinese politicians for over 40 years. The only Western politician who spent more time talking to Chinese politicians is former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a close friend of Schmidt's.

China's rise was one reason that Schmidt spent all his political life campaigning for a strong, united Europe. In his opinion, this was the only way that Europe could defend "its interests against and with China in the world." This message seems not to have reached Europe yet.

DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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