With a trade volume of over 180 billion euros in 2017, Germany is by far China’s most important trading partner in Europe. German businesses have long since discovered China as a manufacturing and investment base and increasingly as a location for research. At the same time, the world’s most populous country is a huge market and took over from Germany as the world’s leading exporter in 2009.
China’s rising influence is not limited to Asia. Africa and Latin America have also seen massive increases in economic involvement from China in recent years, including through the new Belt and Road Initiative.
China is now also indispensable in climate policy. In view of its position as an opinion leader in the block of emerging economies and its tight national environmental legislation, the country is increasingly aiming to play a leading international role in climate-protection issues.
Rapid growth – and its downside
China’s rise has freed millions of people from poverty. However, this success also has its downsides. Millions of Chinese people, particularly outside the urban centres, still live below the poverty line and only have limited access to healthcare and education. Many move as migrant workers to the cities and metropolitan areas in the Pearl River Delta around the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Macao Special Administrative Region and city of Guangzhou, where they try to find work. These migrant workers often live in precarious conditions. The high level of air and water pollution in China is a further negative result of the economic boom.
Western countries and China disagree on the issue of respect for human rights. In 2017, the well-known dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, died in prison in China. Chinese leaders reacted with criticism and a lack of understanding to this award. Time and again, very harsh sentences are handed down to people who stand up for the rule of law, democracy and human rights. The situation in the ethnic minority regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, where cultural and religious identity are curtailed, are a further cause for concern. The public’s attention has been drawn to the western region of Xinjiang in particular by reports on mass arrests and the setting up of labour camps. In meetings with Chinese leaders, the German Government regularly urges China to respect human rights.
China’s ongoing territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with several coastal nations in the South China Sea are also a source of concern. Germany and the EU regularly call on all parties to act with circumspection and settle disputes peacefully.
What is German policy towards China?
Germany and China are united by a strategic partnership. They enjoy close bilateral relations, including at the highest political level. Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to Berlin for the first German-Chinese intergovernmental consultations in June 2011. Further wide-ranging intergovernmental consultations were held in the following years. The fifth intergovernmental consultations took place in Berlin on 9 July 2018 and resulted in numerous agreements, for example on cooperation on connected driving. In a joint declaration, both countries laid down a road map for cooperation in the coming years.
German diplomacy uses these close contacts in a variety of ways, for example, to call for the strengthening of the rule of law and a better human rights situation, as a partner to the German business sector in expanding business ties, and in campaigning for China to take on a more active role in tackling ecological challenges.
In multilateral forums too, German foreign policy aims to get China on board as a responsible partner in resolving the challenges of our time, including efforts to find effective solutions to international crises, reform of the World Trade Organization, global climate protection and sustainable development based on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
German-Chinese cooperation on culture and education
Alongside the pillars of politics and business, the third pillar of German-Chinese relations is cooperation in the areas of culture, education, research and society. Germany promotes exchange between young people and the learning of the German language through school partnerships, collaboration between universities and language courses. The Goethe-Institut, German Academic Exchange Service, foundations and numerous other organisations strengthen bilateral cultural and educational exchange through their projects in China.
Media dialogues and discussion forums also provide a forum for addressing controversial issues such as civic participation and the right to freedom of expression. The three-year programme of events, Germany and China – Moving Ahead Together, which ran from 2007 to 2010, provided impetus for further intensifying exchange between the two countries’ societies. The programme, which attracted more than two million visitors in six Chinese cities and featured over 600 exhibitions, performances and workshops on sustainable urbanisation from economic, cultural, architectural and educational viewpoints, forged long-term friendships and ties.