Beijing would vote for Angela Merkel in Germany’s upcoming general elections.
To be sure, Chinese policymakers tell this author, do not have an opinion on who should be winning Germany’s elections as China is not ‘interfering’ in other countries’ internal affairs. China, the official line goes, is ‘flexible’ and will continue business as usual policies, regardless of whether the German electorate votes the centre-right government out of or a centre-left government led by the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) into office. Unofficially, however, Chinese policymakers are very aware that a centre-left government with the Green Party as the SPD’s coalition partner led by Merkel’s challenger Peer Steinbrück could mean a return of human rights, the rule of law and Tibet onto Germany’s China agenda. While Germany’s Green Party is interested in human rights in general and in China in particular, human rights and other issues constituting ‘interference’ in Chinese internal affairs, are on the very bottom of China’s German policy agenda. In fact, these issues are not on Beijing’s agenda at all and whoever will govern Germany in a few days will be asked to keep it that way.
Angela Merkel might not be loved in China for her past China policies putting human rights onto the bilateral German-Chinese agenda. Today and two years after the outbreak of the Euro and European debt crisis, however, she is pretty much what China wants Europeans to be: predictable, more often than not silent on human rights, Chinese dissidents, the lack of free speech and expression in China and Tibet. Furthermore, thanks mainly to products and services with the label 'Made in Germany' sold in China, Angela Merkel enjoys respect and even admiration amongst Chinese policymakers and her policies are typically referred to as ‘pragmatic’ and ‘result-oriented’ in Chinese policymaking circles.
Merkel’s China policy pragmatism over recent years (to be sure, her critics have accused Merkel more than once of being an opportunistic politician bowing to requests from Germany’s business elites in order not to rock the China boat) stands in sharp contrast to what she had on her China agenda in the past. In 2007, she caused a bilateral German-Chinese diplomatic crisis when she decided to receive the Dalai-Lama in Berlin. Back then she was accused of interfering in China’s internal affairs and Beijing threatened to make life harder for German multinationals and investors in China.
But that belongs to the past and today China’s media portray Merkel as a decisive, competent and tough political leader who have steered Europe through the Euro crisis. Leaving aside that Merkel’s European economic and finance policies are assessed very differently in Greece, Portugal and also Italy, from a Chinese perspective Merkel is the anchor of European economic stability and a role model for the rest of the EU and Europe.
Admittedly, Merkel’s China policy options and choices are very limited: Germany is by far China's biggest European trading and investment partner and Germany's political leadership will continue to find itself under pressure to make sure that German multinational companies can invest in China without political obstacles caused by German politicians asking Beijing to improve China's human rights record, stop jailing journalists and activists and asking for the adoption of as opposed to the rule by law.
China’s support for the Euro is perceived as crucial in Germany and Merkel’s Berlin has not forgotten that China expressing its confidence in Europe's common currency and buying European debt on a large scale in 2011 and 2012 has been helping the EU to assure the rest of the world that the Euro together and the European Union is not on the brink of collapse.
Merkel’s challenger, Peer Steinbrück from the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) on the other hand is fairly unknown in China. In fact, the Chinese media rarely mention him, let alone explain his policies and how they could be different from the familiar Merkel-style China policies. To be sure, given that foreign policy has not been an issue on the campaign agenda, it is hard to understand where Peer Steinbrück stands in terms of relations with China. The German election campaign-as lame and unexciting it might be this time-is about domestic and economic policies and foreign policies in general and relations with China in general do not feature on the campaign agenda.
China for its part will continue to exert its economic and financial influence in Europe and will use its ability to absorb large sums of European debt as a political tool pushing Europe to lift the weapons embargo imposed onto China in 1989 and officially acknowledge China as market economy before the EU is according to WTO regulations obliged to do so anyway in 2016. Angela Merkel-if she wins the elections-will continue to be an important interlocutor for China in this context and German business investing in China will continue to hope that Europe’s ‘Mutti’ will continue to give the ‘right’ answers to all of the issues on Beijing’s European wish-list.