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Merkel urges equal treatment for German businesses in China

June 11, 2020

With the COVID-19 crisis wreaking economic havoc, Germany is eager to reboot trade with China. But German politicians and rights groups cautioned that boosting economic ties cannot come at the expense of human rights.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in China with Premier Li Keqiang
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the impact of the coronavirus pandemic with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang during a video conference on Thursday morning.

In a statement, Merkel's spokesman said the two leaders discussed a ranged of issues, with economic issues strongly in focus.

The chancellor "highlighted the need for further steps on market access ... and equal treatment of foreign companies," her spokesman Steffen Seibert said after the talks.

The talks came amid a difficult situation on the global market, as countries look to maneuver through the COVID-19 crisis, as well as tensions after China moved to tighten its grip on the former British colony of Hong Kong and accusations from the EU that Beijing launched a targeted COVID-19 "disinformation campaign."

What was discussed?

  • Investment, trade appeared to be the focus of the talks, with Merkel emphasizing "Germany's interest in rule-based and free multi-lateral trade"
  • Merkel emphasized that China needs to take further steps to open up its market and give equal treatment to foreign companies
  • The two leaders also discussed human rights and "the situation in Hong Kong"
  • Seibert also said that the two leaders talked about boosting trade between the two countries amid the disruption caused by the coronavirus.
  • Merkel and Li did not appear to explicitly address the growing tensions between the US and China,  although "current international topics" were discussed
  • There was also no concrete mention of the cancellation of a major EU-China summit that was slated to take place in the German city of Leipzig this September

Merkel urged to defend Hong Kong

Prior to the talks, Merkel faced pressure from human rights groups and German politicians — including within her own party — to take a strong stance against China's clampdown on Hong Kong.

The foreign policy expert for Merkel's conservatives, Roderich Kiesewetter, urged China to respect Hong Kong's autonomous status after Beijing moved to implement a national security law that could be used to crackdown on dissent.

Read more: A year of Hong Kong protests: Is Beijing finally regaining control?

German businesses calling for deal

Although China is one of Germany's most important trade partners, German and European businesses operating in China have been struggling to operate in the country. 

The head of the Federation of German Industries (BDI) told news agency DPA ahead of the talks that better market access in China needs to be assured. The BDI has been pushing for an EU-China investment agreement and hopes that a deal will be reached this year.

EU-China tensions over virus 

Merkel's phone call with Li also came amid rising tensions between Beijing and Brussels. It's been speculated that the EU-China summit in September wasn't called off due to the coronavirus pandemic, but rather due to tensions over Hong Kong, climate change and other issues.

The EU also accused China and Russia on Wednesday of waging targeted coronavirus disinformation campaigns that targeted Europe.

dj, rs/msh (dpa, Reuters)

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