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Sieren's China: True values

German President Joachim Gauck made it clear in his speech in Shanghai during his first trip to China what values are important to him. By doing so, he caused offense to some of the addressees, says DW's Frank Sieren.

What makes a a good speech? A good speech is one that reflects the orator's frame of mind and convincingly explains what is important and what is not. In this sense, German President Joachim Gauck made a good speech at Shanghai's Tongji University on Wednesday. It paved the way for others during his first trip to China. Gauck said that he was convinced that Chinese society had become more diverse and that this "diversity is an important source for the inventiveness and success of China". For him, the aptitude of societies to learn is important, as is the rule of law. He made clear that the law had to stand above the powers-that-be, even the Communist Party.

He added that even a social market economy was "simply unthinkable without a functioning legal system". Aside from the rule of law, Gauck said that he considered the "inalienable human rights, the separation of powers, representative democracy and popular sovereignty" to be "universal values". Technical innovation is only half as valuable without "social innovation", he said. A social state only generates economic force "when it is allied with democracy". All this is important to Gauck. Most Germans would agree with him. In this respect, it was a good speech.

Challenge: Expose weaknesses without causing offense

However, a speech also has addressees. To expose their weaknesses and inspire them to do better without causing offense is much more difficult than describing one's own viewpoint. In this regard, relationships between countries are similar to those between people. It's hard enough for parents to practice constructive criticism of their children or bosses to give positive feedback to their employees. But it's even more difficult for friends or partners to confront each other as equals. Gauck underlined that a good friendship, like that between China and Germany, needs "sincerity and openness" to consolidate already existing trust. But sincerity can also be hurtful. There's a fine line between constructive criticism and destructive reproaches.

DW columnist Frank Sieren

DW columnist Frank Sieren

Gauck would not be Gauck if he had not had statements in his speech that could tip the boat. In the second paragraph there was a sentence, which could be understood by the Tongji University in Shanghai as condescending criticism and was surely meant that way. "A university has to be a place for free research and open debate." That goes without saying. And it's not because it does not go without saying in some parts of China that it needed to be mentioned. That's why even reformers at the university might understand this sentence as an attack on the wiggle room that they have painstakingly created for themselves over the past decades.

The fish has to like the worm

Another sentence could be similarly interpreted: "As long as societies and governments prove to be systems that are capable of learning, then progress can be aimed at." China's government is most capable of learning, as has been clear over the past 30 years. Indeed, whether it is making progress in all social areas can and must be discussed. The following remark is also right but could be interpreted as a reproach because even China is not so binary: "Individual civil rights cannot be replaced by material goods or social status in the long term.". Of course, the civil rights of most Chinese citizens have increased dramatically, yet at the same time the rights of some human rights groups have become more restricted.

What honors Gauck is that he broached controversial topics openly. This is also frequently the case with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not with Britain and France. Gauck wants his addressees to listen, even to think things over. People in China tend to listen more when they feel understood. The fish, not the fisherman, has to like the worm. That's why a clever orator will also underline areas in which he did not succeed at once. Gauck described Germany's difficult learning curve in detail. However, it is no less important to acknowledge what a friend has already achieved before turning to what could be improved.

Fewer Chinese listeners reached than hoped?

If one can talk about weaknesses at all that was the biggest shortcoming in Gauck's Shanghai speech. He expressed admiration for China's rich cultural heritage but then launched into his criticism - in effect saying that the heritage committed China to improvement. His praise was expressly limited to China's economic success and the fight against poverty. The major progress in terms of rule of law, political participation, workers' rights and the social state was not given much attention. That's a shame because Gauck thus ended up reaching fewer Chinese citizens than he could have.

Columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for more than 20 years.

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