“We plead with you, Chancellor Merkel: Please help us!”
These were the words of Joshua Wong and other leaders of the Hong Kong protest movement in an open letter to Angela Merkel published this week in the mass circulation Bild Zeitung, just days before Angela Merkel’s 12th official trip to China.
It was well timed. Ms Merkel is the first important western leader to visit Beijing since the unrest began in Hong Kong. And the domestic pressure is growing on her to use the trip to show solidarity with the pro-democracy protesters in the city — and to warn Beijing of grave consequences if it intervenes militarily to put down the unrest.
The protesters scored a big victory on Wednesday when Carrie Lam, Hong Kong chief executive, withdrew the extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be transferred to mainland China for the first time. But her concession was rebuffed by activists as “too little, too late”.
Ms Merkel’s response to the Wong letter, in which he asked for a meeting with the German leader during her trip to China, was cool. Steffen Seibert, her spokesman, said she had “taken note” of it but had no plans to change her travel plans and meet the activists.
He added that Germany wanted to see a negotiated end to the unrest in Hong Kong, which began as a protest against the extradition bill but which has since morphed into a broad campaign for greater democracy.
“We are in favour of a solution that is based on dialogue and non-violence, [and] the laws that apply to the people of Hong Kong,” he added. People there had a “long tradition of the rule of law” which was anchored in the Basic Law of 1997. “That should, in our view, be the basis of dialogue and rapprochement.”
That boilerplate response reflects the bind Ms Merkel is in. Ties with China are of the utmost importance to Berlin, and Ms Merkel’s government is at pains to preserve a close relationship, especially at a time when its economy appears to be heading for recession, buffeted by fears of a disorderly Brexit and the shockwaves of President Trump’s trade war with China.
In 2018 China was Germany’s biggest trading partner for the third year running, with bilateral trade volume reaching €199bn, a 6 per cent increase on 2017. Meanwhile, German investment in China rose from €30bn in 2010 to €81bn in 2017. China is by far the most important market for Germany’s big carmakers, and Ms Merkel will be accompanied on her trip by some of Germany’s big car bosses, as well as CEOs from the semiconductor, logistics, financial services and energy industries.
But the chancellor has frequently faced accusations from campaigners and opposition MPs that she has toned down her criticism of human rights abuses in China — such as the internment of some 1.5m Uighur Muslims in detention camps in Xinjiang — for fear of harming the trading relationship with Beijing.
“Too often in the past the German government has stayed silent when it should have addressed undemocratic developments,” said Omid Nouripour, an MP who is the Greens’ spokesman on foreign affairs.
Berlin denies it is soft on China. “We want [our two countries] to remain in dialogue with each other . . . but a dialogue must allow for criticism,” said one senior official. Though she won’t be meeting Joshua Wong, he stressed that Ms Merkel will have several encounters with Chinese civil society as part of her trip, including a discussion with students at Wuhan University.
Yet even from Ms Merkel’s own party, the Christian Democratic Union, there have been calls for her to get tough with Beijing. Marian Wendt, a CDU MP, said Germany should resist “kow-towing” to China and insist that it live up to its commitment to the “one country, two systems” approach that guarantees the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong’s population.
“We should not shrink from clear demands, for example on human rights, out of our supposed economic interests,” he told the Rheinische Post newspaper.
A similar message came from the Social Democrats, Ms Merkel’s junior coalition partner. Nils Schmid, the SPD’s foreign affairs spokesman said the chancellor should make it “abundantly clear” to the Chinese that Germany would “not accept” any attempt by Beijing to use troops from the mainland to violently suppress the protests.
Meanwhile, in Berlin the talk was all of Joshua Wong’s letter. In it, he appealed to Ms Merkel to convey to the Chinese leadership the protesters’ demands, such as an independent inquiry into police brutality.
“You grew up in [communist] East Germany,” he wrote. “You experienced directly the terrors of a dictatorial regime . . . We wish you would show the same courage and determination against criminal authoritarian regimes, which inspired Germany and Europe before the end of the Cold War.”