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Sieren's China: Back to business

Frank Sieren
September 4, 2019

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will have to strike the right balance on her upcoming trip to China amid mass protests in Hong Kong. But this should be an easy task for her, says DW's Frank Sieren.

Symbolbild Deutschland China Flaggen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

China needs friends in the West at the moment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel knows this. However, China's communist government does not want others to tell it what to do. Back in Germany, however, people will be expecting Merkel to do some straight-talking. And Beijing knows this.

It might be challenging to strike the right balance if you were a newbie in politics, but not if you're Angela Merkel. Moreover, Beijing will be receiving her with plenty of goodwill, considering she's seen to be one of the last reliable politicians in the West. This is the result of her hard work after a few blunders in her early years. Now, she knows how to formulate criticism and deliver a clear message without her Chinese counterparts losing face. She's paid a dozen visits to hone her skills, and she even seems to enjoy this game.

Read moreHong Kong protesters ask Angela Merkel for support

No point in threats

The foreign policy spokesman of the Free Democratic Party in the Bundestag Bijan Djir-Sarai was not particularly tactful when he recently said that it would be extremely problematic to talk only about improving trade and economic relations. Everyone knows that Merkel will not do this. But she will not make any threats either. How could she? Should Germany stop selling and producing goods in China? Threats are not clever.

Frank Sieren
Frank SierenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl

What makes sense is for Merkel to explain why it would be in China's interest to make sure Hong Kong retains its freedom. She could also talk about the risks involved in maintaining so-called re-education centers in Xinjiang. It will also be a good tactic to discuss the pros and cons of social credit systems for foreign companies, in the hope that some of the disadvantages will be removed further down the line.

Of course, Merkel does not have huge room for maneuver considering the close economic relationship between China and Germany. But this relationship has developed over the years into one of great trust. Beijing is more likely to listen to close economic partners than to those with whom it has looser business relations, especially if they are able to strike the right tone, as Merkel is.

There's no doubt that this is more difficult when the German economy is struggling. Right now it is a little worse for wear: in the midst of Brexit and the trade dispute between the US and China, it has shrunk in the second quarter of this year. Furthermore, the risk that US President Donald Trump could slap tariffs on European cars has not been helpful. 

Read moreUS, EU reluctant to criticize China 

United against Trump

Merkel will not only mention the points of contention between Germany and China but will seek to underline their mutual interests. In her endeavors to mitigate the global havoc that Donald Trump is currently creating, she will stress how important it is for Europe to be united. Over the past few years, China has developed strong relations with Hungary, Greece, Portugal and now Italy, which has made it difficult for Brussels to find a united stance towards Beijing. Though it was Beijing's plan to weaken the EU, it now needs a stronger Europe to stand up against Trump.

Merkel will have plenty of opportunities to set the tone. She will have breakfast with Prime Minister Li Keqiang on Friday and later meet President Xi Jinping at a reception in the Great Hall of the People. On Saturday, she will deliver a speech to students at Huazhong University in Wuhan. It will be interesting to see which issues she chooses to address openly. She should by no means call on Beijing to enter a dialogue with protesters in Hong Kong, as this would clearly be seen as interference in China's domestic affairs. However, she can easily talk about how dialogue always helps in difficult times. She knows that if she strikes the right tone, her counterparts listen.

On the other hand, nobody can hold it against China's leaders that they want to decide for themselves what makes sense for the country considering that the West has set the rules for the past 500 years.

Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.