Olaf Scholz’s visit to China is shorter than any Chancellor’s trip there before. The international attention is all the greater for this. Is there a turning point in China politics?
For decades, chancellors’ trips to China almost always followed the same pattern. The heads of government from Germany took two or three, but sometimes four, five or even six days to visit the most populous country in the world.
In addition to the compulsory program with the Chinese leadership in the capital Beijing, we went to at least one other metropolis. And as a rule, there was a business delegation with sometimes more than 40 top managers, some of whom returned home with contracts worth millions or even billions.
Only once was a chancellor’s trip originally planned for four days cut short to 16 hours without an overnight stay. That was in 1999, NATO had accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war and the then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had to apologize in Beijing.
Strict corona requirements for foreign delegations
When Olaf Scholz arrives in Beijing on Friday morning, he has even less time than Schröder did back then. The Chancellor will be in the Middle Kingdom for just 11 hours. His radius of movement in Beijing is limited to a few kilometers around the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing.
With around a dozen entrepreneurs, the business delegation is comparatively small and contracts worth billions are not to be expected this time either.
There is one reason for the smaller format this time: Corona. The Chinese leadership has imposed a tough zero-corona regime on its own citizens and guests. Visiting official foreign delegations in Beijing is only possible under strict conditions – even for those who come into contact with them.
That’s why the Chinese side combined several visits this week: Scholz joins visitors like Vietnam’s party leader Nguyen Phu Trong, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan.
Every word ends up on the gold scale
As short as the trip is, the international attention is huge. Scholz is the first Western head of government to visit the recently strengthened President Xi Jinping after his re-election as head of the Communist Party.
Every word, every gesture of the chancellor in Beijing will be weighed in gold – by the allies in the European Union, by the USA and last but not least by the coalition partners in Berlin.
Will he address the oppression of the Uyghurs clearly enough? How does he react to the Chinese threatening gestures towards Taiwan? Does he address the repression against opposition figures in Hong Kong? And how does he deal with the dispute over Chinese influence on critical infrastructure in Germany and Europe?
In short: will Scholz stick to the course of his predecessor Angela Merkel, which was geared towards pragmatism and cooperation? Or is he also completing his much-touted turning point in China policy?
Baerbock reminds Scholz of the coalition agreement
With his lonely decision to allow the Chinese state-owned company Cosco to enter a terminal in the port of Hamburg, the chancellor set an example before his departure that upsets many. The Greens in particular now view the chancellor’s short trip with suspicion. It is feared that Scholz could hit pegs in Beijing, which can then no longer be moved so easily.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) therefore felt compelled to remind the chancellor of the coalition agreement before he left Tashkent, Uzbekistan. In it, the SPD, Greens and FDP agreed to seek cooperation with China “on the basis of human rights and applicable international law”. “We want and must structure our relations with China in the dimensions of partnership, competition and system rivalry.”
Scholz wants a new approach to China
The traffic light still has to define where the accent should lie in this triad. The joint China strategy agreed in the contract is only just being developed. In an article for the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, Scholz already outlined how he imagines the result. “Today’s China is not the same as it was five or ten years ago,” he writes. “It is clear that if China changes, the way we deal with China must also change.” That doesn’t sound like business as usual. But what does that mean specifically?
In the article, Scholz promotes a dual strategy. On the one hand, as a consequence of the failed policy of rapprochement with Russia, he also wants to reduce economic dependence on China. That’s why – unlike his predecessors – he was the first Asian country to visit the democratic G7 partner Japan – a clear signal to Beijing. A decoupling from China, as practiced by the USA, is out of the question for him. The German economy would not cope with that anytime soon.
Between the CP party congress and the G20 summit
The timing of the trip continues to be a source of debate. It has been just two weeks since Xi secured all power at the party congress and was only surrounded by “yes-men”. The fact that Scholz is now the first prominent Westerner to personally congratulate him on extending his term of office could be exploited by China’s propaganda.
On the other hand, the fact that Scholz is speaking to Xi just under two weeks before the G20 summit in Indonesia also offers an opportunity. On the holiday island of Bali, November 15 and 16 – with or without Russian President Vadimir Putin – will be primarily about the Ukraine war and its consequences. The chancellor is hoping that Beijing will put pressure on Moscow. “Clear words from Beijing to Moscow are important – to uphold the United Nations Charter and its principles,” he writes in the “FAZ”.
So far, however, the Chinese leadership has maintained its demonstrative support for the Russian president. Observers can see that the support of the geostrategic partner in the rivalry with the USA is no longer so enthusiastic. But a real change of course by Xi is considered unlikely.
“If Scholz expects to get China to publicly criticize Russia’s war or threats in Europe, he will be disappointed,” said Shi Yinhong, a renowned international relations professor at People’s University (Renmin Daxue).
China: “We are partners, not rivals”
In China, people don’t yet know what to think of the new product. “We have to wait until Scholz has set foot on China’s soil to find out what he’s saying and how well he’s saying it,” commented state broadcaster Shenzhen TV. Other state media tried Chinese experts to point out differences between the “value-oriented” Foreign Minister Baerbock, who causes Germany “more trouble than advantages”, and Chancellor Scholz.
The government highlighted similarities and advantages of cooperation. “We are partners, not rivals,” said foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. Mutual understanding far outweighs differences. But he also warned that if the chancellor, as announced, addressed human rights violations or the persecution of minorities in Xinjiang, this would be interference in internal affairs. “We reject China being slandered.”