German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has met with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the first visit by a leader of the Group of Seven (G7) nations to China in three years.
Leading a high-level business delegation to China on Friday, the German leader’s focus on boosting economic ties with Beijing has led to criticism of his apparent desire to strike deals with a nation growing more authoritarian under President Xi.
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German industry’s heavy dependence on China has also faced renewed scrutiny, particularly over Berlin’s over-reliance on Russian energy imports, with the country deeply exposed when Moscow cut off supplies in retaliation for sanctions imposed over its invasion of Ukraine.
Scholz’s arrival in Beijing marked the first visit by a leader of the G7 – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and United States – since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019.
Received by a smiling Xi at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Scholz said he hoped to “further develop” economic cooperation – while alluding to areas of disagreement.
“It is good that we are able to have an exchange here about all questions, including those questions where we have different perspectives – that’s what an exchange is for,” Scholz said.
“We also want to talk about how we can further develop our economic cooperation on other topics: climate change, food security, indebted countries,” he said.
Xi told Scholz that as large nations with influence, China and Germany should work together during “times of change and turmoil” for the sake of world peace, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
Scholz also spoke with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang later in the afternoon at a meeting in which he called for fair trade between the two countries. He urged Beijing to do more to press its ally Russia over the war in Ukraine.
“I told President (Xi) that it is important for China to use its influence on Russia,” Scholz said at a meeting with the press during which the Chinese side insisted there was “not enough time” for questions.
‘Going it alone’ on China
Ahead of the visit, German opposition politician Norbert Roettgen told the Rheinische Post newspaper that Scholz’s approach to Beijing appeared to be underpinned by the idea that “we want to keep doing business with China, no matter what that means for the dependence of our economy, and for our ability to act”.
“The chancellor is pursuing a foreign policy which will lead to a loss of trust in Germany among our closest partners,” said Roettgen, from the conservative CDU party, accusing Scholz of “going it alone” in his approach to China.
Berlin says there were consultations with key partners in the US and Europe ahead of the visit and Scholz also promised a “candid exchange” with Chinese leaders on sensitive subjects.
The German and Chinese economies are deeply intertwined. China is a crucial market for German goods, from machinery to vehicles made by the likes of Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Chinese state media has lauded the visit.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will soon meet German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. pic.twitter.com/zjs4DqNV5f
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) November 4, 2022
Patrick Fok, reporting from Beijing for Al Jazeera, said that state media in China had described the visit in terms of “hitting the brakes on the EU’s extreme confrontational stance on China”, and the visit will likely be framed as an endorsement of Xi’s new government.
Xi was re-elected for a third, five-year term at the Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing last month, an endorsement that propelled Xi to the status of the most powerful leader in China since Mao Zedong.
“Olaf Scholz’s visit has come under extreme scrutiny with many in Europe saying that it signals a lack of a unified voice within the bloc on how to deal with Beijing, and that Germany is making the same mistakes as it did with Russia,” Fok said.
“That is perhaps why this is such a fleeting visit,” he added, noting that the German chancellor will only be in China for about 24 hours.
Scholz said in a newspaper interview that “we will not ignore controversies” and listed several sensitive topics that would be addressed in talks with his Chinese counterpart. They include respect for civil liberties in China, human rights in the Xinjiang region, where the United Nations has said the treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority could amount to crimes against humanity, and the status of Taiwan.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Thursday that China was looking forward to a “successful” visit, and that “cooperation far exceeds competition” between China and Germany.
“China and Germany are partners, not rivals,” the spokesman said.
“Both countries have benefitted from each other’s growth and practical bilateral cooperation. A sound China-Germany relationship is good not only for the two countries, but also for China-EU ties and the world,” he said.
The spokesman also warned that China will not countenance criticism on matters that are “internal affairs”.
“For example on Xinjiang, China’s position is consistent and clear. These are China’s internal affairs, which brook no foreign interference. On the so-called ‘human rights’ issues, China respects and protects human rights,” he said.
“China is against using human rights discussions as a pretext to interfere in China’s internal affairs or smear and discredit China,” he added.
Ahead of the visit, Chinese dissidents and the World Uyghur Congress had called on Scholz to cancel his trip.