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Merkel Should Speak Frankly to China on Rights

Published in: Zeit Online

Chancellor Angela Merkel is going to use the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to address the human rights situation in China in both private and public talks. The intensity with which she is going to do so, however, is questionable. During her first years in office Merkel criticized the human rights abuses in China vocally and frankly. Lately she has been more cautious though and this is a problem. China´s leaders had to some extent gotten used to Merkel´s open and direct rhetoric, should she not raise her voice as she has previously, officials might think the chancellor has softened.

Merkel should refuse to be blackmailed by either the Chinese government or the German industry. Both favor reducing the relationship to economic, educational, and cultural exchanges according to former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt´s motto: : “The Chinese authorities will know what is good for their country. There is no point in raising the issue of human rights.”  This however is a fundamentally wrong approach. Each member state of the United Nations has under hand and seal committed to protecting human rights both internally and externally – this includes China and Germany. Even if one leaves this responsibility aside, the following holds true: human rights are a precondition for constitutional reliability, security, and stability. Despite its dependency on China, the German economy should take this into consideration.

Angela Merkel should refuse to be blackmailed by China´s threat of ending the already quite meaningless, secretive human rights dialogue if she dared to address the country’s human rights deficits publicly. China has proven to be susceptible to international pressure, exemplified in its termination of re-education procedures in labour camps. Pressure from the inside however remains the most effective catalyst for change. Should Merkel publicly address human rights, 400 million Chinese social media users can amplify her voice.

The population´s situation remains appalling, despite unquestionable material improvements. Fundamental freedoms and rights are codified in the Chinese constitution as well as in international treaties. Irrespectively, the Chinese government, President Xi Jinping came into office, has arranged for new initiatives to control and directly censor the press, Internet, social networks, and academic freedom.

The police carried out serial arrests of symbolic dissidents, as recently the civil rights activist Xu Zhiyong, who has been sentenced to four years imprisonment; the Uighur economist Tohti, who was charged with “separatism”, and three of his students; and the activist Cao Shunli, who was seriously ill and died a wretched death in prison on March 14, 2014. The authorities had denied Cao medical treatment.

The state is also proceeding against national minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, where severe repression campaigns are taking place. Measures against corruption, undertaken by the Communist Party, are causing extrajudicial trials, arbitrary detentions, and torture.

The Chancellor must not ignore these extraordinarily troubling trends. She must directly address these and raise the case of the imprisoned Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo and of his wife Liu Xia, who is held without legal foundation under house arrest.

Furthermore, she should use the Chinese President´s visit to publicly address the Chinese population´s increasing expectations regarding transparency, rule of law, right to information, equality, and participation in public matters. These issues prey on the minds of the Chinese public as well as an increasing number of officials´ minds within the Chinese apparatus of power. According to international standards it is Germany´s obligation as China´s strong, reliable partner to support and protect these voices. Chancellor Angela Merkel possesses the required power and credibility to do so without disturbing the closely interrelated economic relationships.

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