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A focus on human rights as Gauck meets writers in China

On his first trip to China, German President Joachim Gauck has not been afraid to talk to intellectuals and civil rights activists. It's a balancing act of diplomacy and frank words.

At the Goethe Institute in Beijing's 798 artist quarter, German President Joachim Gauck met five well-known Chinese writers for a discussion about the country's current political situation and other topics.

Author Xu Zechen was among the writers who spoke with the president. He has won several Chinese literature awards and told the German news agency DPA that he was impressed with how insightful and accessible Gauck was.

"We talked about China's reality and problems and about how literature and art are related to reality," Xu said.

Gauck and his partner Daniela Schadt visiting Beijing's Summer Palace. (Photo: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa)

Gauck did some sightseeing and visited Beijing's Summer Palace with his partner, Daniela Schadt

Another author at the meeting with Gauck was Li Er, who has a famous German fan. Chancellor Angela Merkel gave the German translation of his famous novel "Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree" to her then-counterpart Wen Jiabao as a gift during her 2008 state visit. Merkel has also met the writer in person.

Listening to different voices

On Monday, Gauck met with civil rights lawyers and human rights activists. DPA reported that China's state security had attempted to prevent the lawyers from participating in the meeting, but failed.

"The German public should know that I don't just observe what the (Chinese) government wants me to see," Gauck told DPA.

Two of the lawyers who met with Gauck were also able to attend a reception at the German embassy on Tuesday. One of them said that police warned them against coming but did not actually cause major problems at the event.

"In the debate about human rights, the role of the law in a socialist society, problems with the constitution's application and civil freedoms, it's important to not only hear official voices, but also those of the people who are governed," Gauck said, according to DPA.

Good bilateral relations

Gauck brought up human rights in his meeting with the Chinese heads of state and government.

"We both know that we are not really in agreement over certain political questions, but we are prepared to talk about it," he was quoted as saying by China's Caixin magazine.

Joachim Gauck (left) and Li Keqiang shake hands. (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Wu Hong/Pool)

Gauck and Li Keqiang on Monday

It wasn't all about contentious issues, though: Gauck emphasized the countries' good bilateral relations and China's support in dealing with North Korea and conflicts in the Middle East.

Gauck reportedly discussed questions about the economy with Premier Li Keqiang. They spoke about deepening bilateral relations between Germany and China, the state of China's economy and the five-year plan passed last week by the National People's Congress.

Delicate discussions

The second stop on Gauck's trip is Shanghai, where he arrived on Tuesday afternoon and planned to meet with influential party leader Han Zheng. Gauck will give a keynote address at Tongji University on Wednesday.

Gauck's five-day China visit is considered one of the most important trips of his four-year presidency so far. He has to walk a fine line: on the one hand, he's trying not to damage relations with China, which is an important partner in trade and in international conflicts; on the other, Gauck, a civil rights activist in communist East Germany, wants to remain true to his convictions. In addition to a 60-person delegation, the president is accompanied by Bärbel Kofler, the German government's commissioner of human rights and humanitarian aid.

Topics that experts say could still be discussed on the trip include China's environmental issues, the country's claim to islands in the South China Sea, and the contentious NGO law that Beijing wants to use to exert strict control over foreign organizations and foundations.

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