Olaf Scholz in China: Chancellor expresses surprising criticism
China’s government was hoping for a feel-good visit from the Chancellor. But he spoke about human rights and market access.
BEIJING taz | Sentences like these alone made the controversial trip to Beijing worthwhile for Olaf Scholz: According to a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Head of State Xi Jinping said that both “the use and the threat of nuclear weapons” would be rejected. In addition, a “nuclear crisis on the Eurasian continent must be prevented.”
Of course: This is not a diplomatic breakthrough for the end of the Ukraine war. But at least that was China’s clearest warning to date to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The fact that Xi Jinping spoke at Scholz’s side should be seen by many in Europe as a success of the Chancellor’s visit.
Admittedly, expectations before the trip were pretty low. On Friday morning, Scholz’s twelve-hour short stay in Beijing seemed to be no more than one insubstantial exchange of diplomatic phrases.
The German delegation moved in a completely sealed off corona bubble with a radius of a few hundred meters. On the flight, the government plane was temporarily parked in South Korea, allowing the crew to avoid the ten-day forced quarantine in the “zero Covid” bastion of China.
China should respect human rights
At the airport in the Chinese capital, disease control workers in white body suits rolled out the red carpet. However, when the chancellor met with Xi Jinping and outgoing Premier Li Keqiang, the country’s two most important politicians, in the Great Hall of the People, they removed their face masks.
“It is right and proper that I am here in Beijing today“, Scholz introduced his statement. By the end of the day’s program at the latest, even some skeptics will have to agree: the massive resentment about the chancellor’s trip – including among European diplomats – turned out to be partly unfounded.
Scholz found more direct words with the Chinese government than many critics expected. With view on Situation of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang he reminded the Chinese government that it is committed to respecting human rights. It should also be mentioned that “no interference in internal affairs”, as Beijing otherwise assumes.
Regarding the Taiwan question, Scholz said that any change in the status quo should only be made “peacefully and by mutual consent”. He also asked Xi Jinping to use his influence on Russia. Li Keqiang said, at least in a vague statement, “We cannot afford any further escalation.”
So it wasn’t just a feel-good visit, as China’s government had hoped for. Towards the end of the joint press conference, during which the Chinese side did not allow any questions, Premier Li Keqiang’s face visibly darkened. High-ranking party officials are not used to reporters raising uncomfortable issues.
Scholz also expressed criticism on economic issues – such as market access for foreign companies in China. His words must have been balm for the entrepreneurial spirit of the business delegation who traveled with him. A total of twelve CEOs – from Adidas to BASF to Volkswagen – accompanied the Chancellor.
Contacts important for China
But the top German managers probably returned without any voluminous deals. The corona bubble alone made negotiations unattractive for the Chinese. Only Biontech was assured that foreign expats in China would finally be able to legally receive the MRNA vaccine. So far, the People’s Republic has only approved its domestic inactivated vaccines.
Chinese newspapers were conspicuously reluctant to comment on the visit. Beforehand, they hoped that Olaf Scholz would emancipate himself from the pressure from the USA and lead the pragmatic course of Angela Merkel away. Measured against this, the Chinese government should probably only be moderately pleased.
China’s relations with the West deteriorated dramatically amid the pandemic. After two and a half years of “zero Covid”, the country’s economic situation is extremely tense. It is therefore important for Xi Jinping to maintain contact with Germany.