German-Chinese government consultations 2023
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Chinese responses to Germany’s China strategy: Attack abroad, assuage at home

Beijing has reacted in different ways to Berlin’s intention to de-risk bilateral ties, says Sophie Reiß. It depicts the relationship more positively in China than in Germany.

The Chinese government swiftly communicated its displeasure after Germany published its new China strategy on July 13. Berlin’s aim to “de-risk” relations would “merely amplify wrong perceptions and assessments and do damage to cooperation and mutual trust,” the Chinese embassy in Berlin said in a statement. But compared to these robust words for foreign consumption, China’s party-state media adopted a noticeably more conciliatory tone when addressing its domestic audience. Given tough socio-economic conditions, Beijing seems intent on maintaining popular confidence in relations with a key trading partner.

While Germany’s China strategy includes fraught topics such as human rights and expanding relations with Taiwan, Chinese coverage focused disproportionately on the document’s points regarding economic relations (and their importance). For example, after describing Germany’s strategy in broad terms and going into detail only about economic relations Reference News, a newspaper published by the state news agency Xinhua, reassuringly concluded: “Germany does not seek to fundamentally change the relationship with China.”

Nonetheless, one of the main aims of Berlin’s strategy is to “de-risk” its relations with China, limiting political and economic vulnerabilities by, for example, diversifying supply chains. But Chinese media portrayed this as a victory over any shift towards a full-blown decoupling of ties – and a personal one for Chancellor Olaf Scholz over its alleged proponents within his government and in the US. The People’s Daily also quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesperson warning about weakening of German-Chinese links: "In today's world, non-cooperation is the greatest risk […] and disunity is the greatest challenge."

Beijing plays up strengths of Germany-China relations at home

The importance of playing up the strength of Germany-China relations could also be gleaned from expert reactions on German-Chinese relations. Tian Dewen, deputy director of the Institute of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), emphasized Scholz’s role in moderating German China policy, adding that “the pragmatic attributes of China-Germany relations transcend the practical needs of party politics.”

Similarly, Cui Hongjiang, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), was quoted by the Global Times as saying: “Germany’s talk of ‘de-risking’ within China in fact increases risk factors, especially for its own companies.” In doing so, Cui emphasized business interests while sidelining all other factors – including potential risks for China.

Statements by prominent experts align with state media and indicate the Chinese government’s efforts in narrowing the space for diverging views. To China’s public, they imply a general consensus about a certain type of pragmatism in Germany – China-friendly and business-oriented.

Despite differences within the German government, Chinese media misrepresent views as reliably pro-China. Scholz is consistently described as a pragmatic politician continuing predecessor Angela Merkel’s approach to China. Flanking this, China-friendly and pro-business statements are presented as being representative of German public opinion. For example, Left Party politician Sevim Dağdelen was quoted by the online outlet Guancha describing de-risking as a “catastrophe for the German industry and millions of German employees” – terms similar to those used by German business representatives.

Upbeat portrayal for domestic consumption brings longer-term risks

Playing up such views also allowed Chinese commentators to depict German concerns regarding Beijing’s policies (at home and abroad) as fringe rather than  increasingly mainstream, as they actually are. Media sought to discredit the critical stance of Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her Green Party as “rare” or “out of the ordinary.” Baerbock receives harsh and often personal commentary, with an op-ed by a famously pro-Beijing Hong Kong commentator as a “warrior queen,” politically short-sighted and led by the US – while depicting Scholz as the steadying force of a purported rational mainstream.

This approach is not new. China’s focus on Scholz’s alleged “pragmatism” in contrast to the Green Party’s and particularly Baerbock’s “hardline posture” has been a constant since the Chancellor visited Beijing in November. Remarkably, despite the fact that Berlin has become more openly circumspect about China since then, the tone and wording of Beijing’s reactions to both German politicians have not changed accordingly. This suggests Beijing hopes to continue its “pragmatic” approach of supporting business while sidelining values and human rights.

Misrepresenting Germany and its government as largely pro-China is convenient for the Chinese government, at least in the short term. This allows business as usual for now – but it does carry longer term risks. Should events drive German “pragmatists” like Scholz to become unequivocally critical of China, Beijing would have little room to maintain a positive domestic spin on Germany-China relations. Finally conceding a negative turn by Germany would be the kind of hit to bilateral relations both sides have so far sought to avoid.