No other deceased foreigner has received as much respect in China as Helmut Schmidt. Germans should think hard about how to address his legacy, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.
If a dead person can be "given face" then the deceased German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has received plenty of "face." There's an expression for this in Chinese - "Gei mian zi." One of the most important elements of the Confucian ideal of harmony is to respect another's face and to help it flourish through actions or words.
What the Chinese government has done since Schmidt's death goes well beyond the demands of "Gei mian zi." The German statesman was commemorated by the most important evening 7 o'clock news programs on Wednesday evening. The most important news items of the day were the condolence messages of China's leading politicians, including President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang. CCTV also broadcast an obituary in which Schmidt was honored as being "an old friend of the Chinese people."
An unusual amount of recognition
This is unusual in many respects because the CCTV program is usually restricted to domestic politics. For both of China's top politicians to express their condolences was a sign of the particular friendship that China and Germany enjoy. The message was also amplified by the fact that both expressed their condolences in their own name as well as in their official function.
It's clear why. Alongside Henry Kissinger, Helmut Schmidt is the foreign politician who dealt most intensely with China. Like Kissinger, Schmidt was not interested in teaching or showing the Chinese anything, but rather in understanding them and taking heed of China's growing importance in the world. The fact that his views about human rights, which can and must be argued about in the West, sometimes fit into the Chinese government's plans was only one aspect of his multifaceted engagement with China.
This was not the pivotal reason why Schmidt gained so much respect in China. Chancellor Angela Merkel always meets dissidents when she visits and talks openly about human rights matters with her Chinese counterparts - as she did just two weeks ago too. However, she is by far the most respected European politician in office at the moment.
The fact that Schmidt gained so much respect has much more to do with the fact that he engaged so comprehensively with the country. In his many books, most of which were translated into Chinese, and public appearances, he always showed an interest in China. Alongside Europe, it was the most important topic of his political life.
As the state daily newspaper "Global Times" wrote this week, Schmidt had "his own, particular and far-sighted" viewpoints. In 1975, he became the first German chancellor to meet Mao Zedong. The paper added that in the 40 years that have since passed, Schmidt continued to travel to China to renew his view of the country. Numerous pictures show him with different party leaders and prime ministers, showing how he enduringly and deeply shaped Sino-German relations.
Dealing with Helmut Schmidt's legacy
We Germans should now think about how we can appropriately preserve China's remembrance of Helmut Schmidt. Even more: We should ensure that China's young generation continues to engage with this great German. We cannot ignore the fact that so many young Chinese citizens barely know his name. His death was not talked about much in China's social media networks.
Whereas President Xi, who last met Schmidt in 2014, thanked him for opening the "big door of cooperation" between China and Germany, most young Chinese citizens take it for granted that China and Germany cooperate. Whereas Prime Minister Li, who visited Schmidt in Hamburg in 2013, said Schmidt's engagement had helped contribute to the fact that Germany plays a huge role in China's current Europe strategy, young Chinese people no longer know how difficult it was to establish that relationship.
Renewing the relationship over and over again
Germany's image is shaped by our cars, our football players and perhaps our environmental standards. We should not take it for granted that this will remain the case. Helmut Schmidt is an example of someone who knew how important it is to renew a relationship. He can be an example to us even after his death. What is more important, however, is that we follow his example with our actions.
DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.