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POLITICS

EXPLAINED: Why is Olaf Scholz’s stance on China so controversial in Germany?

The German Chancellor has allowed a Chinese state-owned company to acquire a stake in the Port of Hamburg, against all expert advice - just as the German public wants to become more independent of China. There are fears that Germany could repeat the mistakes it made with Russia.

EXPLAINED: Why is Olaf Scholz's stance on China so controversial in Germany?
Olaf Scholz, now German Chancellor, during a 2019 visit to China as German Finance Minister. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wu Hong

In early November, Olaf Scholz will be the first G7 leader to visit China since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It comes right after a Communist Party Congress that saw President Xi Jinping stack the Chinese Politburo with his allies, forcibly remove his immediate predecessor, and amend the party Charter to oppose Taiwanese independence.

Scholz’s position on expanding business ties with China has led to major rows in his coalition government as warnings grow of allowing foreign powers to gain hold of critical infrastructure and repeating the mistakes that happened with Russia. 

OPINION: Germany has failed to do its energy ‘homework’ and now faces years of catching up

Foreign policy experts say more politicians – and even regular Germans – are waking up to the threat that over-reliance on China poses, but the Scholz Chancellery is choosing to ignore the warnings.

“Scholz isn’t sleepwalking into a China dependency. His eyes are wide open, says Jessica Berlin, Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“He knows his own government is against this but nevertheless is choosing to continue the mistaken policies of the previous government, where he served as both Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister.”

Public wants to reduce economic links with China

At the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany was getting over half its gas from Moscow. Becoming independent of Vladimir Putin’s Russia has resulted in a massive dent in the economy as well as the average person in Germany having to pay higher electricity, heating, and grocery bills.

But the public isn’t backing down. Around three-quarters of people in Germany have said they are willing to pay higher prices if it helps Ukraine. Wary of replacing its dependence on one dictatorship by becoming reliant on another, a staggering estimated 84 percent of people in Germany want the country to reduce economic links with China, according to a recent poll by broadcaster ZDF. 

An October 2022 poll for German public broadcaster ZDF asks if respondents agree that becoming more independent of China is important. Source: ZDF

Yet the Chancellor seems keen to arrive in Beijing with as many hands held out as possible for Chinese cash. Scholz is bringing CEOs of large German companies like Siemens and Volkswagen with him. Volkswagen is particularly exposed, now relying on China for over 40 percent of all its sales. The company even operates a factory in the heart of Xinjiang, where the Chinese Muslim minority, the Uyghurs, are regularly detained in forced labour camps, tortured, and even subjected to forced sterilisation.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, coalition partner to Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), recently told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that it’s risky for major German companies to be so dependent on a single market with authoritarian rulers – especially given the possibility that history may repeat itself.

“Complete economic dependence based on hope leaves us open to political blackmail,” she told the newspaper. “The task of a responsible economy – and even more so of politics – is to not allow us to get back into a situation where we have to save the chemical and auto companies with billions in tax money, because they made themselves dependent on the Chinese market.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock meets with her Chinese counterpart at a G20 meeting in Indonesia. Baerbock’s Greens advocate economically disentangling Germany from China. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/photothek.net | Thomas Imo

Controversy over Hamburg 

Scholz also appears keen to bring in Chinese money closer to home, by allowing Chinese state-owned shipping giant Cosco to acquire a stake in the Port of Hamburg – against advice from his own advisors, several ministries, Germany’s allies, his coalition partners, and the European Commission.

“The Chinese Communist Party must not have access to our country’s critical infrastructure,” General Secretary of the liberal FDP Bijan Djir-Sarai, whose party governs with Scholz, told the German DPA press agency.

READ ALSO: German Chancellor under fire over alleged support for China project

As a compromise to smooth the tensions in the government, Germany will only allow Cosco to acquire a 24.9 percent stake in Hamburg’s port, unlike the 35 percent that was originally planned.

The government officially approved the investment on Wednesday morning. A total of six German ministries, including the economy, defence and foreign offices, wanted to veto the Cosco deal, while former Hamburg mayor Scholz supported the sale.

A source told AFP that reducing the stake, would “prevent a strategic participation and reduce it to a purely financial participation”.

“Of course, this does not solve the actual concerns,” the source said, adding that the six ministries would still have preferred an outright ban.

container ships discharged at hamburg port

Container ships are discharged at Hamburg Port terminals. The EU is said to have warned Germany months ago about backing China’s investment in the port. (Photo by Axel Heimken / AFP)

On Tuesday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier joined in with the warnings against Germany becoming too dependent on China. “For the future, it means we have to learn lessons, and learning the lesson means we have to reduce unilateral dependencies wherever possible, and that applies especially to China,” Steinmeier told broadcaster ARD.

But the problem goes deeper than business links, with the chief of the German BND intelligence service saying last week that some sections of German society still have a certain “naivety” where China is concerned, especially in areas of scientific collaboration – where Chinese companies, backed by state money, have been known to steal trade and technological secrets from their western partners.

Germany “must be prepared for the fact that economic levers could be used to enforce Chinese ideas,” BND Chief Bruno Kahl told an annual meeting of German secret service. “Should there be differences in political views between Germany and China, these means will be used.”

Foreign policy expert Jessica Berlin told The Local that German dependence on Chinese buyers and low production costs go back decades, and that old habits are hard to break.

“The Chancellery is the part of German government that’s most resistant to change. This is something that will increasingly cause tensions in the governing coalition and in German society more widely,” said Benjamin Tallis, Research Fellow and the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“The Chancellery might have their heads in the sand when it comes to Chinese dependence, but I’m not sure anyone else does anymore. That’s actually encouraging, because it shows the level of fight and debate that’s going on.”

However, with China a top trading partner for Germany, Scholz is keen to stand his ground. 

“We do not have to decouple ourselves from some countries, we must continue doing business with individual countries – and I will say explicitly, also with China,” Scholz recently said.

With reporting from AFP

Member comments

  1. Doing business with China is fine, if we must. Allowing them to have any form of control is a total no-no.

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POLITICS

Berlin says goodbye to part of Germany’s colonial past

Berlin on Friday stripped a street and a square of German colonialists' names and dedicated them to African resistance figures, as the country looks to reckon with historical guilt beyond World War II atrocities.

Berlin says goodbye to part of Germany's colonial past

“For far too long in Germany we have minimised our colonial past, understated colonial injustices and the crimes committed,” said Stefanie Remlinger, the Green leader of Berlin’s central borough of Mitte.

During the renaming ceremony in the middle of the capital’s “African Quarter”, Remlinger called on participants to “look not just to the past, but the future, as well”, and to improve the teaching of colonialism in schools.

Built in the early 20th century, before World War I, when Germany presided over a sizeable colonial empire, Berlin’s “African Quarter” has stood as a symbol of the failure to look closer at colonial injustices.

‘Symbol’

After years of protest from various campaign groups, “Nachtigalplatz” (Nachtigal Square) was renamed “Manga-Bell-Platz”.

The explorer Gustav Nachtigal, who lent his name to the square, played a key role in the 19th century in the creation of German colonies in west Africa – Togo and Cameroon – and Namibia, which was known as German South West Africa.

His name has been replaced by that of Emily and Rudolf Douala Manga Bell, the heads of the royal family of the Douala people from Cameroon.

Leader of the resistance against the expulsion of the Douala people from their ancestral home, Rudolf was executed in 1914.

“The inauguration of this square… rehabilitates him 108 years after his execution in Douala,” said Victor Ndocki, Cameroon’s ambassador to Germany.

The royal couple’s descendant, the Douala king Jean-Yves Eboumbou Douala Manga Bell, who came from Cameroon for the occasion, told AFP the new name was an “extraordinarily important symbol of recognition”.

Princess Maryline Douala Manga Bell, Rudolf’s great-granddaughter, who also travelled to Berlin, said the move could alert “young Germans to what happened before these young people were born”.

A few hundred metres (yards) from the square, “Luederitzstrasse” (Luederitz Street) was renamed after Cornelius Fredericks, a resistance fighter from the Nama people in Namibia, who died in a camp in 1906.

Genocide

A trader from the port city of Bremen, Adolf Luederitz was long celebrated as a “pioneer of colonisation” and the founder of German South West Africa. He is now accused of having deceived the local Nama people by buying their lands for a pittance.

During the ceremony, Namibia’s ambassador to Germany Martin Andjaba said the name change should be “a tool supporting this process leading to reconciliation for the living generation and those to come”.

“Engaging these colonial legacies should not separate us but bring us together,” he said, noting the twinning of the two towns of Luederitz in Germany and Namibia.

In Namibia, Germany was responsible for the massacre of tens of thousands of indigenous Herero and Nama people between 1904 and 1908.

Last year after long negotiations with the Namibian side, Berlin recognized the acts as a “genocide” and pledged to send development aid to support the indigenous groups.

However last month, Namibia asked to begin renegotiations on the terms of the agreement.

Despite Friday’s ceremony, many vestiges of colonialism are still to be found, such as Mohrenstrasse – the street of the Moors – in the centre of the capital.

For 25 years, campaigners from the black community have been lobbying to get rid of the name. Local authorities agreed a change in 2021, but a complaint was lodged against the move and a legal process is under way to determine the street’s fate.

Germany’s vaunted culture of remembrance in atoning for its World War II crimes is frequently cited as exemplary among modern nations.

However, campaigners argue that with its intense focus on the Nazi period and the Holocaust in particular, Germany has neglected to fully reckon with other dark periods of its past.

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