The West and China

27.05.2011 - Interview

Article by Human Rights Commissioner Markus Löning on the West’s relationship with China.First published in “The European”, 27 May 2011.


Whereas there have certainly been positive trends on human rights in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution, events over the past few months clearly point in quite a different direction. Cases like those of Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei are representative of a generally deteriorating situation. There may be many explanations for this (perhaps the Communist Party fears that the revolutions in North Africa will be copied in China), but there can be no justification.

Developments in China are marring Sino-German relations. Above all, however, they are damaging China itself – its people and their development, its prospects and its political influence. China has undoubtedly made progress on human rights over the past years and decades. This has made the country more stable, and a more reliable partner on the international stage. But if the clock turns back now to the bad old days, confidence will be lost: the people’s confidence in their leadership, and other countries’ confidence in an important partner.


The Federal Government is regularly criticized for being too soft on China. When the chips are down, its critics say, it puts economic or political interests before human rights. I think this is too simplistic a view, and as Human Rights Commissioner I try to assess our relations more carefully.

Firstly: the responsibility for observing and implementing human rights in China lies with the Chinese Government. Ai Weiwei is in detention not because the German Government has not voiced a clear view (it has done, let it be said), but because the Chinese leadership wants him there. It would be presumptuous to think that Germany could bring about his release with a few sharp words. That’s not to say we should do nothing. But we have to take a realistic view of our own possibilities.

A consistent policy means never letting there be any doubt where our sympathies lie. On the one hand, this means that we seek close contacts with civil society in China. On my visits to the country I have met many people who fight courageously day in day out for their freedom: bloggers, lawyers, artists. It is important to support them. And we do not mince words in our dealings with the Chinese leadership. This doesn’t always go down well and sometimes leads to disputes. But if we want to trust one another, we have to be able to speak frankly.

There’s no perfect way

Cultural exchange may be another lever. So it is right to stage the “Enlightenment” exhibition in Peking. But we cannot stop there – culture can only prepare or complement, it cannot replace consistent policy. Neither does consistent policy mean following the logic of public outcry. A public statement may be the right way, because the Chinese Government attaches importance to what people in Germany think of China. But it is not the only ingredient in an intelligent foreign policy concept.

There is no perfect way. Our relations with China are and will remain a challenge. Both sides need to be clear that there is no alternative to dialogue. We must rid ourselves of the illusion that there is some sort of masterplan. Clear words and above all mutual respect – that’s what’s needed. We need to listen – and in turn we can expect the other side to listen to us. It will be to our mutual benefit.

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