China – a land with many faces


Shanghai, © dpa/picture-alliance


The People’s Republic of China is a key player on the global political stage who is gaining more and more influence. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the country is directly involved in decision-making on global issues.

What is Germany’s policy on China?

Germany and China are united by a longstanding partnership. In its engagement with China, Germany supports the EU’s multi-faceted approach, which regards China as a partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival. Bilateral relations are close, including at the highest political level. Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed then Premier 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 sixth intergovernmental consultations took place in a virtual format (due to the pandemic) on 28 April 2021. A joint communiqué issued by the countries’ Foreign Ministers set out the priorities 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 improvements on human rights, as a partner to the German business sector in expanding economic ties, striving for greater market access and promoting a level playing field and in campaigning for China to take on a more active role in tackling ecological challenges. 

In multilateral fora, too, German foreign policy aims to get China on board as a partner for addressing the challenges of our time, including efforts to find effective solutions to international crises, reform the World Trade Organization, and pursue global climate protection, arms control and sustainable development based on the United Nations 2030 Agenda.

Economic cooperation

With a trade volume of over 220 billion euro in 2020, Germany is by far China’s most important trading partner in Europe. For German companies, China is a very important location for production, investment and research. At the same time, the world’s most populous country is a huge market and the world’s leading exporter of goods.

The rising influence of the People’s Republic of China is not limited to Asia. Europe, Africa and Latin America have also seen massive increases in involvement from China in recent years, including through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Rapid growth – and its downside

China’s economy has grown to become the second largest in the world. China’s rise has freed millions of people from poverty. Despite this, many Chinese

Migrant workers at Qingdao Station in China.
Migrant workers at Qingdao Station in China.© dpa/picture alliance

people, particularly outside the urban centres, still live below the poverty line and only have limited access to healthcare and education. Many seek employment as migrant workers in the cities along the eastern coast. The high level of air and water pollution in China is a negative result of the economic boom. The 14th Five-Year Plan published in March 2021 seeks to strengthen high-quality growth and to increase the quality of life.

Human rights concerns and territorial disputes

The human rights situation has deteriorated in recent years. The situation in the ethnic minority regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, where cultural and religious identity are curtailed, are a cause for serious concern. The public’s attention has been drawn to the western region of Xinjiang in particular by reports about mass detentions and the setting up of forced labour camps. Against this background, the EU on 22 March 2021 responded to the severe human rights violations by adopting sanctions against specific individuals and entities. China responded by imposing strict sanctions on, among others, several members of parliament and research institutions. In meetings with Chinese leaders and in multilateral fora, the German Government regularly urges China to respect human rights. Time and again, very harsh sentences are handed down to people who peacefully stand up for the rule of law, democracy and human rights.

Another troubling development is the steady undermining of the high degree of autonomy and the many freedoms that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region enjoys thanks to the “one country, two systems” principle. A key factor in this is the national security law that entered into force on 30 June 2020. In a joint and coordinated response, EU member states already in July 2020 agreed on a package of measures that includes making it easier for people from Hong Kong to reside in the European Union. 

China’s territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with several coastal nations in the South China Sea are also increasingly putting pressure on stability in the region. Germany and the EU regularly call on all parties to act with circumspection and settle disputes peacefully, based on international maritime law. Growing tensions over the Taiwan Strait are a further cause for international concern. However, none of the sides involved in this dispute stands to benefit from an armed conflict.

German-Chinese cooperation on culture and education

Alongside the pillars of politics and business, the third pillar of German-Chinese relations

German booth at education trade fair in Beijing
German booth at education trade fair in Beijing© picture alliance / dpa

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, the German Academic Exchange Service, various foundations and numerous other organisations strengthen bilateral cultural and educational exchange through their projects in China.

Media dialogues and discussion forums also provide a means of addressing controversial issues such as civic participation and the right to freedom of expression. In recent years, the scope for German-Chinese cooperation in the spheres of culture and education has decreased.

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