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Scholz, in China: A difficult mission in the partner and rival

2024-04-14 15:42:00, Kosova & Bota CNA
Scholz, in China: A difficult mission in the partner and rival
Olaf Scholz and Chinese President Xi Jinping

A video goes viral on Chinese social media platforms. It shows a middle-aged man with a black leather briefcase. In German he explains what he has with him: documents, glasses and an iPad. Everything is subtitled in Chinese.

The protagonist is Olaf Scholz. Just in time for his second trip to China, Scholz launches his TikTok profile. The social network developed in China excites millions of young people in the world. But it is also controversial, because videos that are not liked by Chinese rulers are hidden by censors.

Like any other visit to China, this one of Chancellor Scholz is expected to be a balancing act. The question that always arises - will Scholz criticize China's negative human rights record. How will he do this? Will he meet activists critical of the government and jeopardize Germany's economic interests?

Scholz, in China: A difficult mission in the partner and rival

"The questions are being asked wrongly. We must first learn to distance ourselves from this apparent conflict," says Eberhard Sandschneider, partner at the Berlin think tank Global Advisors. "Both are part of a chancellor's trip." This is not the problem of the German chancellor, but of all previous chancellors since Helmut Schmidt. "If they travel to China, of course it is about economic interests, and those of the traveling delegation."

Partner, competitor, rival systems

For the German government, China is a partner, competitor and system rival. This is what is written in the German government's China strategy of 2023. Now the chancellor in his second visit will show where he is positioned in this contradictory strategy.

Globalization brings together two powerful world economies such as China and Germany. In the Chinese press, Germany is always praised as Beijing's biggest partner. Germany trades as much goods with China as France, Italy and Great Britain combined. China lures with giant markets and is gradually removing restrictions on foreign investors to boost the country's economy. Even in future topics such as digitization or electric mobility, China is becoming a leader.

Scholz, in China: A difficult mission in the partner and rival

China with powerful technology

"The times when German firms had technology in all fields and were ready to make it available are over," summarizes China expert Sandschneider. China is one of the world leaders in many future technologies, from artificial intelligence to climate protection. "It's about time we finally figured this out."

Through globalization both people's economies will be highly dependent on each other. The German government's China strategy emphasizes that "derisking" - reduction of risks - should be followed in relation to China. But the German government refuses to separate the two economies from each other. "This independence debate completely ignores the facts," Sandschneider points out. "It should always be said: Addictions have been the basis of our well-being in recent years." Whoever says that we should reduce addictions should be fair and tell people that there will be less welfare. Politics sidesteps this because it does not bring applause. But that's really the reality behind this discussion."

Example: Energy turn as a central theme. According to the institute's information on China, Merics currently 87% of photovoltaic panels in Germany are imported from China. At this point there is a lot of debate about reducing risks, says analyst Nils Grünberg. "How to use China's large capacity and at the same time reduce the risk, this is the central question of our future policy." But how, it is still not clear.

The government coalition without a deal

In the circles of the government coalition of social democrats, SPD, Greens and liberals, the FDP has no deal for China. Even the opposition gets involved in the debate, so at the beginning of April, Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder traveled to China. After the meeting with the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Qiang, Söder sharply criticized the policy of the German government. Söder called for a "realistic policy" of the German government instead of a "moralistic policy". Söder wants to exchange with the difficult partner, arguing that "if we only have a conversation with those who are completely like us, then we won't really have much to do."

Scholz, in China: A difficult mission in the partner and rival

The Greens distance themselves from China. They fear that Germany, after its fatal politics closely linked to Russia and the Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago, is entering a new dependence on China. Economist Max Zenglein says the debate has always had an internal political side. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Baerbock, and the Minister of Economy, Habeck from the Greens, are not accompanying the chancellor, but have signaled that they will travel to China this year.

"Just for the time that Chinese President Jinping makes available for talks with the German chancellor, it becomes clear how much interest there is in German policy in China," says Sandschneider. Of course, Beijing follows "very closely the various party positions in Berlin. According to the expert Sandschneider, whoever follows a realistic policy like Söder has open doors in China, this is also a signal for the Foreign Minister, Baerbock, who has difficulty finding a schedule of talks there and does not travel in this even with chancellor Scholz./ DW

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