Illustration: Craig Stephens
Chi Wang
Chi Wang

Why Germany’s China policy is unlikely to change, post Merkel

  • The depth of Sino-German trade relations makes a dramatic change in policy on either side unlikely
  • An understanding has been reached where Berlin can press Beijing on human rights, without hurting trade relations, while China will also maintain the status quo and not use economic coercion
Angela Merkel paid her last visit to Washington as German chancellor earlier this month. US President Joe Biden sought Merkel’s commitment to his broader strategy of allied cooperation against the challenges posed by China – an ambition he laid out during his June trip to Europe – but he was probably frustrated by her reluctance to give specific details of Germany’s support.
While trade relations between the United States and China have plummeted, China and Germany remain arguably each other’s most important trade partner. Neither Merkel nor her successor will be eager to upset this relationship by taking more aggressive action alongside the US and its European allies.

There have been indications of mounting discontent in Germany at Sino-German relations. In April 2020, a German newspaper made out a US$165 billion bill to be paid by China for the coronavirus pandemic.

In October 2020, a Pew survey found that 71 per cent of Germans had negative views of China, and 78 per cent had no confidence that Chinese President Xi Jinping would “do the right thing regarding world affairs”. There has been mixed messaging from the German government on whether on a new course in China policy is imminent.

But Germany’s broader track record with regard to China suggests that the government’s seemingly more provocative moves are merely face-saving and not indicative of a broader shift in China policy.


Angela Merkel raises Hong Kong issues with Premier Li Keqiang

Angela Merkel raises Hong Kong issues with Premier Li Keqiang

Writing for Politico, Matthew Karnitschnig argued that, under Merkel, Germany and China reached a “tacit understanding” whereby Germany will periodically take a stand on human rights, and China will go through the motions of protesting, but neither will fundamentally change course in the interest of pragmatism. This strategy is likely to outlast Merkel’s tenure.

Sino-German relations are rich and complex, predating both the modern German and Chinese states. The first official government-to-government contact came in 1861, when the Prussian government sent the Eulenburg expedition to Qing China.

Following German unification, Otto von Bismarck sought a greater foothold in China to compete with Britain. He sent a banking and industrial survey group to China in 1885 that kick-started decades of German investment in China. Germany established a sphere of influence on the Shandong peninsula and a naval base at Qingdao.

The German legacy in Qingdao persists to this day in the architecture of the city, and in the brewery founded there in 1903.

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After the first world war, the Treaty of Versailles granted the German holdings in Shandong to Japan, prompting a massive outcry in China that led to the May Fourth Movement. In the 1920s, many Chinese studied in Germany, including future premier Zhou Enlai.

When I was growing up, my family spent summers in Qingdao, and it was here that I was first exposed to German architecture and culture. But much of the Sino-German relationship I remember from my youth is a chapter that the current governments in Beijing and Berlin would probably prefer not to dwell upon.

Charlie Chaplin in a scene from “The Great Dictator”, the 1940 film satirising Hitler. There was once affection for the Nazis among many Chinese, back when nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek sought German help to deal with the Communist threat. Photo: AP
Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Nationalist government, sought German military advisers in his campaign to wipe out the Communist threat. When Zhang Xueliang, the “Young Marshall”, travelled to Germany to expand the military cooperation, Hitler gifted him three ornate gold pistols with ivory handles, which he explained were intended for death by suicide in the event of imminent capture by the enemy.

Zhang kept one pistol for himself, gave one to Chiang, and the third to my father, a high-ranking general in the Nationalist army. My father gave the pistol to me, and I kept it until I left for the US to study in 1949.

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There was thus great affection among many Chinese for the Nazis during the 1930s. I donned a swastika armband and shouted “Heil Hitler” alongside my primary school classmates.

In 1941, I excitedly went to the movies to watch The Great Dictator, in which Charlie Chaplin satirised Hitler. The political commentary of the film largely went over my head, but I remember being excited to see someone resembling Hitler on the big screen. Months later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and invaded Hong Kong, and the fleeting affection for Hitler in China vanished.

Ironically, a German Catholic priest played an integral role in my departure from China in 1949 by helping me secure a flight from Qingdao to Shanghai, where I was able to leave the country. Such flights were difficult to come by then, mere months before Nationalist rule on the mainland collapsed.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China later that year, the US-aligned West Germany did not recognise the Communist government in Beijing, while the Soviet-aligned East Germany did.


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This stood until October 1972, when West Germany normalised relations with China in the wake of Nixon’s visit. Trade and investment ties, previously the bulwark of Sino-Germany relations, expanded dramatically in the following decades.

Today, China is Germany’s largest trading partner, and Germany is China’s largest trading partner in Europe and sixth-largest overall. One in three German cars – including 40 per cent of Volkswagens – is sold in China. The depth of trade relations between China and Germany makes a dramatic change in policy on either side unlikely.

This means that Germany is likely to continue to press China on human rights and support some of Biden’s agenda, but it will not take any action that would dramatically upend its trade relationship. China will also maintain the status quo and will not use the kind of economic coercion against Germany it has against other Western countries, like Australia.
It remains to be seen where Sino-German relations might go under Merkel’s successor, to be determined following an election in September. The flooding in Germany has somewhat affected the race, with none of the front runners thus far winning praise for their responses to the crisis.

But, regardless of the electoral result, I expect German pragmatism to win out when it comes to relations with China.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation