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Grappling with China

October 1, 2009

Communist China was founded 60 years ago, bringing an end to a decades-long civil war. It has gradually returned to the international stage. But Germany has grappled with finding the right approach to the country.

Graphic of chinese flag and euro notes
Economic interests play a major role in Europe's relations to ChinaImage: Bilderbox.com/DW-Montage

When Mao Zedong announced the foundation of the People's Republic of China in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1949, the West was shocked. It was the Cold War, and now there were 600 million people on the other side - with the Communists.

Once again, there was talk of the "yellow peril" which had already made the rounds at the beginning of the 20th century. But this time, the peril was red.

"I can only say: China, China, China," said Kurt Georg Kiesinger, Germany's chancellor in the late 1960s, referring to western nations' perception that China was a possible threat.

At the same time, the West had already intently noted the break between the Soviet Union and China at the beginning of the 1960s. China suddenly became part of the strategic equation, particularly with Moscow in mind.

"It could be that in the not too distant future, Russia will have to make a decision: Should I reach an agreement with red China, or with Western Europe and the United States?" said Konrad Adenauer, Germany's chancellor at the time.

Grassroots communism fascinating for western leftists

In China, meanwhile, the Cultural Revolution was underway. Students who called themselves the "red guards" were sent to the countryside to implement the Revolution's ideals.

Red guard speaking into a megaphone
The red guards terrorized peasants in the countrysideImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Europe's youth, in particular the 1968 student movement, was fascinated by China and Maoism. China had became an object of interest for leftists as a result of its discord with the Soviet Union. Many of the rebelling students in Europe felt inspired by the events in China.

Sociologist Herbert Marcuse, one of the foremost intellectuals of the time, said this new form of communism in China would be based less on central economic planning and more on mass campaigns.

"This is a new communism - grassroots communism, if you like," Marcuse said. "Perhaps it has very different possibilities than the communism that has developed in the Soviet Union."

According to Marcuse, this "Third World communism" would be much more dangerous to capitalism than the Soviet model of Marxism.

Relations thawed in the 1970s

Mao's Little Red Book could be found in the homes of many western students during this era. Andy Warhol transformed the leader of the Chinese revolution into a pop icon. Nevertheless, few people had an inkling of what was really going on in China beyond the propaganda, as western visitors were not allowed to travel there.

Andy Warhol's silkscreens of Mao
Andy Warhol gave Mao the pop treatmentImage: picture-alliance /dpa/dpaweb

But things started to change in the 1970s. West Germany established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic in 1972. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 1975 became the first German head of government to visit Beijing.

Upon his return, Schmidt told German television about his trip and meeting with the already critically ill Mao Zedong. He called China "a fascinating country" that had a lot of catching up to do in terms of economic development.

"Yet, it has been an advanced civilization for over 3,000 years, whereas we have been so for a much shorter time," Schmidt said.

In the 1980s, China developed extremely quickly because of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms. It became even more interesting as a market. German companies began establishing ties to China.

In 1985, Volkswagen was the first western automaker to open a plant in Shanghai. There were signs of political liberalization and hope for reforms. But China was not only fascinating from an economic point of view, said sinologist Tilman Spengler.

"It was a pleasantly unostentatious time," Spengler said. "Lots of Westerners liked the fact that people cycled instead of driving. The fact that they were doing this out of necessity and not because they wanted to was another matter."

Spengler said there was an idea that this developing country might not repeat the same mistakes that had been made elsewhere.

Events of 1989 sparked disappointment and helplessness

When the students demonstrated in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the whole world had its eyes on Beijing. But the euphoria did not last.

The country's leadership steamrolled the protests under tank tracks. The world was shocked. Many Western countries, including Germany, to a large extent froze relations. Spengler said anyone who dealt with China at the time felt helpless.

Students demonstrate in Tiananmen Square in 1989
The protests in 1989 were short livedImage: AP

"You simply didn't go there any more and that was it," he said. Instead, sinologists increasingly turned to historical topics, he said. "Then you didn't have to shake anyone's hand that had to do with the whole thing."

But the state of shock didn't last long. Relations soon thawed. China's economic development had long developed its own pull. In 1995, Chancellor Helmut Kohl went to China and came back with deals worth billions. But he had to justify his trip to the critics at home.

"I don't think that the course of economic reform can be reversed," Kohl said. "I am sure that once again we will see that economic reforms can have an impact on other areas of politics as we have seen elsewhere in recent history. I am absolutely certain they will lead to more political freedom and more regard for human rights."

His successor Gerhard Schroeder was of the same opinion. Only under Angela Merkel have human rights once again became an important part of Germany's China policy - but not to the detriment of economic interests.

Twenty years after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, Germany's relationship with China remains ambivalent. It is caught between moral outrage at human rights violations and a fascination for the country's economic rise.

Author: Mathias Boelinger (sac/svs)
Editor: Michael Knigge