Merkel comes under fire at home for China stance

Angela Merkel is facing criticism in Germany for failing to take a tough line on China over the new national security law it has imposed on Hong Kong, with politicians from both opposition and government parties accusing the chancellor of being too soft on Beijing.

“What the German government said about Hong Kong was the absolute minimum, and it just wasn’t enough,” said Norbert Röttgen, head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and a leading figure in Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

EU countries this month expressed “grave concerns” at China’s imposition of the national security law, saying it “risks seriously undermining the high degree of autonomy of Hong Kong” and “having a detrimental effect on the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law”. 

Speaking at a press conference last week, Ms Merkel echoed that message while emphasising the need to “seek dialogue” with China, on the basis of “mutual respect” and a “relationship of trust”. 

She also said it was in Europe’s interest to continue to work together with Beijing on fighting climate change and developing relations with Africa, “where both we and China are very actively engaged”.

However, China hawks from across the German political spectrum said that instead of stressing the need for co-operation, she should have condemned Beijing outright over the law. 

Angela Merkel hosts President Xi Jinping of China at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 2017 © Guido Bergmann/EPA

They compared her comments to the tough reaction of the UK, which vowed to open a path to citizenship for almost 3m residents of Hong Kong, and of the US, which said it would bar companies from exporting weapons and sensitive technology to the territory and revoke the special trade status it has enjoyed since Britain returned it to China in 1997.

Canada, too, has reacted forcefully, suspending its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and saying it would treat sensitive goods being exported to the territory as if they were being sent to mainland China. 

“Merkel’s China policy is behind the times,” said Nils Schmid, foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats, the junior partner in Germany’s grand coalition government.

“She still sticks to this idea of convergence, that as we deepen our economic ties with China, it will become more liberal and western-oriented,” he said. “But that’s just out of date.”

Throughout much of her 15 years in office, Ms Merkel has laid great store in Germany’s “strategic partnership” with China, frequently praising the countries’ ever more complex economic relationship. China is easily Germany’s biggest trading partner: trade volume between the two reached €200bn in 2018.

In an interview with the Financial Times in January, Ms Merkel, who has visited China 12 times as chancellor, defended Germany’s close ties to Beijing, saying she would “advise against regarding China as a threat simply because it is economically successful”.

But some campaigners and opposition MPs accuse Ms Merkel of failing to speak out forcefully enough about human rights abuses in China — its mass internment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, for example — for fear of harming the economic relationship with Beijing.

“For all the benefits that Merkel’s China policy delivered in the past, these days it is behind the curve,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, a Green MEP. 

“She doesn’t understand that dialogue with a systemic rival that combines an increasingly totalitarian regime with a claim to hegemony is inevitably going to be a lot different to the dialogue we pursued with China ten years ago,” he added.

Mr Röttgen, an old rival of Ms Merkel who is running as a candidate for the leadership of the CDU, said Germany should follow the UK in offering asylum to residents of Hong Kong and also push for the creation of a UN special envoy to Hong Kong.

“This is a test of Germany’s credibility in forging a European strategy towards China,” he said. “It’s a test of how we counter China’s increasingly assertive stance in the world. We need to signal that China’s Hong Kong policy will hurt its international image.”

That point was echoed by another leading CDU politician, David McAllister, head of the European parliament’s committee on foreign affairs. “The EU should use its economic influence to react to China’s massive human rights abuses with economic measures,” he told Die Welt. “There should be a co-ordinated reaction with other international partners to exert pressure on Beijing.”

Meanwhile Manfred Weber, a close ally of Ms Merkel’s and leader of the centre-right European People’s party in the European parliament, compared Hong Kong late last month to Berlin’s status during the cold war-era confrontation between the west and Soviet Russia. “John F Kennedy said ‘I am a Berliner’. I say today: I stand alongside the citizens of Hong Kong”.