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Strain showing after 50 years of Germany-China relations

Matthias von Hein
October 9, 2022

From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, Chinese-German relations have now spanned half a century. But the partners are becoming increasingly estranged.

The German and Chinese flags side by side
Germany and China mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties on October 11Image: Michael Gottschalk/photothek/picture alliance

Which country is Germany's most important trading partner? China, for the past six years. Which country sends the most foreign students to German universities? China again, with 43,629 arrivals in the last winter semester alone. With which country has Germany elevated its relations to the level of "comprehensive strategic partnership?" China. On its website, the German Foreign Ministry describes relations with China as "multi-faceted and intense". China is at once a partner, a competitor, and a "systemic rival."

All of this could barely have been imagined when on October 11, 1972, then-German Foreign Minister Walter Scheel and his Chinese counterpart Ji Pengfei exchanged documents for mutual diplomatic relations in Beijing. The People's Republic of China was not the economic superpower we know today. Half a century ago it was a poor developing country, paralyzed by years ofthe Cultural Revolution and governed by an aging Mao Zedong, who had long lost touch with the population, from a wing of the former imperial palace in Beijing.

There was no talk of a "values-based foreign policy." It was the time of the Cold War. Germany and Europe were divided. The US and the Soviet Union were irreconcilably opposed. Perhaps following the proverb "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," then-US President Richard Nixon made a surprise visit to Beijing in February 1972. China had had a falling out with its fellow communist state the Soviet Union, and Nixon's historic visit triggered a diplomatic race to Beijing, and Germany was right in it.

Duisburg Zoo
The zoo in Duisburg, a city paired with Wuhan, boasts a Chinese gardenImage: Uwe Köppen/Stadt Duisburg

Duisburg on the Silk Road

Half a century later, the "multi-faceted and intense" relationship has been demonstrated by over 100 partnerships between German and Chinese cities. For example, there is one between Duisburg and Wuhan, which size-wise are as different as Germany and China: With about half a million people in Duisburg and more than 8 million in Wuhan.

Duisburg has set up a special China unit to further build relations, and strong connections have already been made. Duisburg Zoo is proud of not only its red pandas, but also of its Chinese garden – complete with a water pavilion, arched bridge, and lion statues as a gift from its sister city. The University of Duisburg-Essen maintains cooperation with Chinese partners.

Most of all, Duisburg has become a junction on the new Silk Road. Every week, 60 goods trains arrive from China. When the first train from the far east pulled into Duisburg's station in 2014, decked in garlands, Chinese President Xi Jinping stood on the platform, escorted by then-German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

Changing political winds

But those images are from a bygone era. The political winds have changed – and become significantly harsher. A wide variety of delegations from both sides used to whizz back and forth between Germany and China. Today, meetings between German and Chinese politicians have become rare. The coronavirus pandemic, with China's strict zero COVID strategy and restrictive entry requirements, has played a role. But it is not only that.

It is mostly because the elements of partnership and competition have receded in recent years, while systemic rivalry has increasingly come to the fore.

Whether it's China's threatening gestures toward Taiwan, the persecution of its Uyghur minority, the massive oppression of the democratic movement in Hong Kong or Beijing's aggressive conduct in the South China Sea: The perceived triggers for confrontations with China are growing – and the common ground is crumbling. Against this backdrop, Chancellor Olaf Scholz's visit to China in November, announced on Tuesday, becomes all the more significant.

The divergent interests of Chinese and international partners in joint ventures used to be described as "sleeping in the same bed but dreaming different dreams." Now it seems like Germany and China have made their beds in different rooms.

China | VW
VW is one of many German companies that have been operating in China for decadesImage: Wolfgang Weihs/dpa/picture-alliance

Competing systems

For a long time, it was assumed that by being integrated into a globalized economy, China would draw nearer to the West politically as well as economically, explained Bernhard Bartsch from the Berlin-based think tank the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

"Many people in China thought this too," the China analyst told DW. But this has changed fundamentally in recent years under Xi Jinping. "Ultimately China is saying: 'We have our own system. And we want to change the global order and the rules that go along with it.' They no longer want to acknowledge and accept the – as the Chinese see it – Western-dominated system." 

President Xi Jinping has an ambitious goal for his country: by the 100th anniversary of the People's Republic of China in 2049, China is to be a mature, modern, socialist power with the ability to set and shape rules, leading the world economically and technologically. Its desire to be at the center of the world order brings China into conflict with the hitherto hegemonic power, the US.

For Berlin, the conflict playing out between its most important economic partner and its most powerful ally is problematic. China expert Bartsch notes: "Germany and Europe are more frequently facing the question: whose side are you on?" In the Angela Merkel era, Berlin tried to avoid being pressured into making such a decision, Bartsch said. But since then, it has become increasingly difficult to avoid. "Germany's relationships with China and the US are not equidistant," Bartsch explained. "We are much closer to the US than to China. Nevertheless, we do not want to miss the opportunities offered by the relationship with China."

Habeck: 'The naivety towards China is over'

The struggle for distance

In the meantime, it is becoming apparent that Berlin is distancing itself from Beijing. German Economy Minister and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, of the Green Party, has already announced a "more robust trade policy" toward China. At a meeting of G7 economy ministers in September, Habeck declared: "The naivety toward China is over."

Habeck had already denied the VW group guarantees for investments in China back in May, which was a shock for the economy. For decades, German companies' business in China had been facilitated by guarantees on investments as well as exports. Germany and China's relationship revolved around these flourishing economic ties. Top German political leaders were regularly accompanied by large business delegations on their trips to China; the signings of new cooperation projects were celebrated. About 5,000 German companies are active in China today – with investments of about €90 billion ($88 billion).

Today the mood is gloomy. In a position paper presented in mid-September, the European Chamber of Commerce in China complained that business was becoming increasingly politicized. "While China once shaped globalization, the country is now considered less predictable, less reliable and less efficient," the paper said.

The Chamber's president, Jörg Wuttke, lamented to DW that "Europeans and Chinese can barely exchange ideas anymore. Hardly any Chinese dignitaries are flying to Europe. That was always incredibly important for a reality check," he said. On the other hand, fewer German students are being drawn to China. "This means we are missing out on each other," he concluded.

As a member of the German-Chinese parliamentarians' group, Social Democrat (SPD) lawmaker Dagmar Schmidt has observed this estrangement first-hand. "When I was chairperson in 2014, we still had a very lively exchange. We received many delegations from China, offered talks, led discussions. It was always very rewarding," Schmidt told DW. But the meetings became less frequent – and more boring. "People no longer spoke as freely, instead they just read from notes; it was all much more controlled." The exchange deteriorated further through the pandemic - occasional video conferences are no match for face-to-face meetings.

Europe and China are already at opposite ends of a vast continent. Yet, 50 years since diplomatic relations began, they seem to be drifting even further apart.

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