A difficult mission - German President Gauck visits China | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 20.03.2016
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A difficult mission - German President Gauck visits China

The visit won't be easy. German President Joachim Gauck embarks on a five-day tour of China - a country facing rapid change, increased repression and restriction of civil liberties, as Bjoern Conrad explains.

German President Joachim Gauck is on a state visit to the People's Republic of China from March 20 to 24. But it won't be an easy trip. As Bjoern Conrad, research vice president at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) explains, key differences between the civil societies are likely to emerge. "The People's Republic is a country currently facing severity in domestic politics, radical upheaval and repression of critics," he said.

It is the first official visit by a German president in a long time. The last time a German president traveled to China was in 2007 when Horst Koehler toured the East Asian country.

Christentum China

Gauck will likely raise the issue of human rights regarding Christians in China

Gauck has been invited to China on many occasions. But now, it seems, he has finally accepted the offer. Sources at the German Presidential Office say that Gauck will likely raise a host of issues - ranging from civil rights, the environment, to foreign policy - in his talks with President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang.

Terracotta Army and Forbidden City

During the five-day visit, Gauck and his partner Daniela Schadt will visit Xi'an City's impressive Terracotta Army as well as the Forbidden City in Beijing. At the same time, the German president will seek to strengthen political ties with a country which is both economically and strategically an important partner for Germany.

The former Lutheran pastor and civil rights activist from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) will also meet with Chinese artists and authors. Moreover, Gauck will attend an Easter Day service and visit the St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral in Xi'an. It is likely that Gauck will address the repression and imprisonment of Christians by the Chinese government on this occasion.

Bildungswesen China - Tongji Universität in Shanghai

Gauck is set to make a speech to some 1000 students at Shanghai's Tongji University

China experts at Merics say the Germans will also hand over a list to the Chinese government with the names of dissidents, human rights activists, journalists and lawyers who continue to suffer under state repression or are behind bars. But as analyst Conrad explains, this is unlikely to take place publically - under the motto: "Openness behind closed doors."

'Freedom speech' at Tongji University?

The preparations for the visit seem to have been no simple matter. Some of the items on the agenda were controversial, and apparently too sensitive for the Chinese side.

Nonetheless, it seems that the two presidents get along well on a personal level - in spite of the fact that President Gauck used critical words during Xi's visit to Germany in March 2014. Back then, the German president called on Beijing to step up efforts to promote the rule of law in the East Asian country, and reminded the Chinese about the indivisibility of human rights.

On a personal level, the most important item on Gauck's agenda is arguably a speech he's set to give before 1000 students at Shanghai's Tongji University on March 23. Founded by the German government in 1907 as part of a cultural policy project, the university stands today as a beacon of German-Chinese scientific cooperation. Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is an honorary professor.

In his speech, Gauck will probably also point to China's low position in international press freedom rankings. It's also likely that he addresses the controversial "NGO bill."

China Peking Smog am Tiananmen Square

Germany and China have agreed to expand their educational exchange programs

If passed, the proposed legislation would substantially limit the work of foundations and other foreign organizations, which would be put under the control of the Chinese state - a cause for concern for the Goethe Institute and German political foundations operating in the country.

The achievements of Chinese socialism

According to Merics, the Chinese president wants to "instruct" his German counterpart on "the achievements of Chinese-style socialism." It's unlikely, however, that this will impress the former civil rights activist given the experiences he made with GDR-style socialism.

In any case, both sides have agreed that 2016 shall be the year for expanding educational exchange programs, both at school and university levels. This has been unanimously decided.