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“It’s a pity such a lively exchange has stopped” – Dagmar Schmidt on dialogue with China

German parliamentarian Dagmar Schmidt has been a member of the Bundestag since 2013 and holds the chair of the German-Chinese parliamentary group. The Social Democrat from the central German state of Hessen tells MERICS Director Publications Claudia Wessling that the body’s work has become a lot harder since the Covid-19 pandemic began in China – and since Beijing’s political stance began to harden.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit industrial supply chains – but also cross-border dialogue. How has the work of the German-Chinese parliamentary group changed recently?

Each half of this group of friends usually visits the other half at least once in the course of a legislative period, but we haven’t been able to make that happen yet. Travel generally has come to a standstill with the pandemic. But even before that our conversations were already less frequent and not seldom more difficult. More and more often, our visitors from China only repeated official positions. We used to host Chinese delegations from a wide variety of backgrounds here in the Bundestag – bloggers, business journalists, scientists, local politicians and business people. It’s a pity such a lively exchange has stopped, especially in difficult times. It would be good to keep these channels open.

How are you dealing with this new situation and what China-related issues are of interest?

We are looking into how we can stay in touch in spite of everything. The group remains very interested in exchanging views, despite all the difficulties. And there is much to discuss: the coronavirus and the joint fight against the pandemic, the economic consequences for both countries, deeper economic cooperation, and of course human rights. We are worried about developments in China, the situation in Hong Kong and the position of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang. It is important to keep mentioning this.

Chinese President Xi Jinping says he is committed to multilateralism. But Beijing’s approach in Hong Kong and gestures like congratulating Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko on his controversial election victory have cause irritation in recent months. What do democratic states like Germany and its like-minded European Union partners have to change in order to deal with China?

The coronavirus and China’s increasing authoritarianism show we have to reduce interdependencies without immediately raising tensions and breaking off economic, political and civil-society ties. We have to broaden our viewpoint from one that was very focused on China. Many companies are already taking a more diverse approach to sales and supply chains by taking other Asian countries into view.

Our dialogue with China will not shy away from clearly identifying problems, and it can not limit itself to diplomatic phrases. China likes to state things clearly and we must respond in kind – and we must find allies that care about human rights and global rules. Europe can be the driving force in this area.

What can Europe learn from the crisis and should it be economically more self-sufficient?

New technologies, telecoms, artificial intelligence, robotics are crucial – Europe has potential in all these areas and the pandemic may have nudged it to invest more in them. We also have to change tack in healthcare – not only how we purchase masks, but also drugs and medical technology. Europe does not need to develop purely negative reactions to China, it should focus on the positive ones.

China is a partner, competitor and systemic rival. Not only EU diplomats have come to emphasize this three-way role – Germany’s Social Democrats, Angela Merkel’s junior partner in government, recently emphasized this in a position paper. But EU member states are not anywhere as close to being united on how to deal with China. How can Europe jointly rise to Beijing’s challenge?

I think the pandemic provided real impetus for more unity in Europe’s China policy. Countries that sympathize with China feel the EU does not support them enough. But the crisis has strengthened Europe’s awareness that it needs to invest in common infrastructure and cooperation. It is unacceptable that it takes forever to travel by train from Frankfurt to Sophia. We need rail, data and road networks to better connect Europe. And in parallel we need to send clear signals to EU members that disregard human and civil rights – we have make it clear we are serious about our values.

This interview first appeared in the August 27 issue of our newsletter "MERICS China Briefing".