Supermarket for Human Rights

The German government has lately been on a charm offensive towards the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, is today finishing a visit to Berlin which, as is pointed out in this piece in Die Welt by reporters Robin Alexander and Daniel-Dylan Böhmer, marks no less than the fourth time Chancellor Merkel has met with high-level Chinese officials this year.

“Merkel, China’s Minister-President and the Supermarket”: the notable bit of this get-together thrown out for appreciation by the public is the joint visit to a local Berlin supermarket made by Chancellor Merkel and her guest Li just yesterday (Friday) afternoon. You can see a photo of both of them at the check-out at the head of the article: Li is pointing at Merkel’s hand as she gathers her purchases there, having paid cash. (Good move: paying with any sort of card would naturally leave readers wondering who it is who provides the stock of money standing behind it.) At first glance, the absence of any sort of Secret Service-like figures is notable, although they must be those suited gentlemen – without sunglasses or earpieces – with their backs to the camera just behind the cigarette rack. And where is Li’s interpreter? I don’t think he is very fluent in English, let alone German.

All in all, a jolly, down-home moment. Meanwhile, you can be sure that other members of the visiting Chinese delegation were hard at work with their German counterparts in near-by government buildings, working out what are said to be no less than forty business/economic agreements that are the true purpose of this summit, including contracts worth billions of euros. What is more, it is sure to be full cabinet members that fill out much of the rest of that Chinese delegation: Merkel has taken a liking to staging cabinet-meets-cabinet get-togethers with neighboring countries (indeed, I recall one such with the Dutch cabinet earlier this year – not in Berlin, but over in northwestern Germany, close to the Dutch border) and clearly decided on the same format for meeting the Asian economic superpower.

Er . . . Human Rights?

That’s fine, but with China you get more baggage into the bargain – particularly now that Hong Kong demonstrators are still flooding the streets there demanding a democracy worthy of the name. Of course, Germany does have a robust free press, so that Premier Li at some point found himself  directly confronted by the question why citizens in Hong Kong should not be able to truly pick their own political representatives. As reported here, he looked impatiently at his watch as the query was translated for him, only to reply that that was a matter of “internal Chinese politics” only.

There was another question in that same vein, about local employees at the Chinese bureau of the renowned German newspaper Die Zeit who were recently arrested. This one Li ignored entirely. Merkel herself had called these Die Zeit incidents “news that really makes you think” (durchaus bedenkliche Nachricht) on an earlier occasion; it’s not clear from the article whether this interrogation of Premier Li happened in her presence. Alexander & Böhmer’s piece does point out that, at the joint news conference, the German authorities resisted Chinese pressure to disallow any questions, such as those above, which might be too awkward for the honored guest to handle. Other countries that top Chinese officials visit, it is said here, often cannot bring themselves to do so.

In the end, German President Joachim Gauck – famous for his past as a prominent East German dissident – was brought in to play “bad cop” to Merkel’s “good cop” and reproach Li for China’s human rights record at a one-on-one meeting. At least that session was scheduled at the very beginning of the two-day conference, and it did last about an hour. But economic times are hard in Europe, including – for an unwelcome change – in Germany; the worry has to arise that German interest in doing business with China will soon trump any influence that country could wield on the human rights situation there, if it has not done so already.

I think we can safely predict that 2014 will not see any fifth meeting between Chancellor Merkel and high Chinese officials, though. For this  year marks 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the self-liberation of most of Eastern Europe from decades of Communist dictatorship. Meeting the Chinese against that backdrop would just be too awkward, no matter what new profits any such meeting could promise. Better to get the year’s remaining Chinese business done, cabinet-to-cabinet, by early October.

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