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China's Perception of the German Federal Elections

Updated: Oct 24, 2021

What China's Perception of the German Federal Elections tells us about the future Sino-German relations?

Bundestag © FelixMittermeir / Public Domain / Pixabay

With Germany's federal election, the long era of Chancellor Angela Merkel is coming to an end. What we can learn from Chinese media coverage is that China is still optimistic that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) will follow Merkel’s line. But this assessment reveals that Beijing’s understanding of Germany’s political landscape seems low.

China loses an important advocate in Berlin

During her 16 years in office, Chancellor Angela Merkel developed close ties to China, in part thanks to her reliability, political sensibility and international reputation, which made her one of the most popular foreign leaders in China. Relations with Germany were of great importance to Beijing, not only because of Germany’s prominent role within the European Union, but also because the relationship served the state leadership in illustrating the important international position the People’s Republic has. Germany’s conservative chancellor established an investment and trade-driven approach towards China, reflected in regular state-visits to the People’s Republic. While leaders in Beijing rolled out the red carpet for Merkel, her non-confrontational stance towards China drew criticism in Germany and Europe alike (Ohlberg, 2021; Woniu Fangwu, 2021, Zhihu 2021 [b]). Now, after the devastating loss of Merkel's CDU in the Federal elections held last September, Beijing might have lost an important advocate in Europe.

How China views German Politicians in the Election Year 2021

The question of Germany’s future China policy never dominated debates around the national election, but became a topic of higher importance this year as it finds mention in almost all the major parties’ election manifestos (Spiegel, 2021; Zhang, 2021). Chinese media coverage is attempting to understand this development while anticipating the direction Berlin’s future decision-makers will take towards China.

When it comes to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) we can see that although the election manifesto is rather critical towards China, the perception of SPD-candidate Scholz within China is surprisingly positive (Zhang, 2021). This is likely due to his non-confrontational approach to Beijing, since he is not explicitly China-friendly. Nevertheless, his political ambivalence makes it hard for Chinese commentators to judge Scholz’s actual positioning on future Germany-China relations (Woniu Fangwu, 2021).

The Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) candidate Armin Laschet’s stance on China seems even more ambiguous to Chinese commentators. While some expect Laschet to continue Merkel’s balancing act towards China (Zhihu, 2021 [a]), others are less certain, recalling his criticism over human-rights violations in Western China. Cui Hongjian, political adviser at the China Institute of International Studies, previously predicted that Laschet’s China policy may be determined by his party’s success in the election: if the result is poor, he is likely to continue Merkel’s line on China and take less risks (Zhang, 2021).

The Green Party is perceived as wanting to lecture China on human rights and international law. The party’s candidate, Annalena Baerbock is regarded as an ideologized and less moderate politician who pays lip service to Western values (Zhang, 2021). As the Greens lobby for deeper transatlantic cooperation, some commentators, such as Ye Jiang from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies predicts that a Green victory in the elections would be bad news for China-Germany relations (Woniu Fangwu, 2021; Deutsche Welle, 2021 [a]). Claiming that Baerbock wishes to impose her Western value system on China, another author cynically writes: “Just go ahead Baerbock” (尽管贝尔伯克) (Woniu Fangwu, 2021). While reports concerning the other candidates are usually quite balanced and objective, coverage of the Greens and Baerbock tend to be more emotionally charged.

The liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) is not covered in detail by Chinese media, due to them not having their own chancellor candidate. The general perception of the FDP within China is quite similar to that of the Greens, as the party has also gradually toughened its stance towards Beijing overtime (Zhang, 2021 etc.). Yet, one article also points out that the FDP’s stance on China may be subject to change as a softer position towards Beijing could bring economic advantages for Germany (Deutsche Welle, 2021 [a]).

Prior to the election, we observed a strong belief that the China-friendly policy of the Merkel era will continue with either Laschet or Scholz as chancellor (Zhang, 2021 etc.). Still, there are also voices suggesting that amidst the noteworthy anti-China atmosphere globally, it is almost certain that Germany’s China policy will become less friendly regardless of who is in power (Zixun Kanban, 2021). Some articles even try to downplay these negative attitudes towards China, by claiming that China’s influence in the world has made Western politicians jealous, which is why they want to win the people’s support by adopting an anti-China narrative (Woniu Fangwu, 2021).

China Remains Optimistic as the SPD moves into the Limelight of the Election

Since the night of the 26th September, we know that the SPD became the largest power in the German Bundestag (25,7%) and put the Christian Democrats in second place (24,1%). While the Greens did not meet their expectations and only became the third largest power in Parliament (14,8%), the Free Democrats achieved a solid outcome (11,5%) (Xinhua, 2021). Although the SPD and the CDU/CSU remain the largest powers, the leverage of the Greens and the Free Democrats rose. One can now say with near certainty that the two kingmakers (FDP and Greens) will play a major role in the new government, the question still remains who will be crowned (Börnsen, 2021; Sina 新闻中心, 2021).

Chinese media attributes the surprising defeat of the CDU to the multiple scandals Armin Laschet found himself in in the past few months - most notably his misbehaviour during the disastrous floods in Western Germany (Wang and Nie, 2021). The possibility that Laschet's unpopularity might also be a result of his vague stance on several hot issues did not find much attention in Chinese media.

Scholz on the other hand is now regarded as a steady and pragmatic political leader with extensive political experience (Sina 新闻中心, 2021; Wang and Nie, 2021). While prior to the election Chinese decision-makers seemingly preferred a victory for Laschet and his CDU, commentators are now optimistic that as chancellor, Scholz would pursue friendly and constructive China-Germany relations. Some even believe that an SPD leadership might weaken Germany’s transatlantic orientation in favour of China (Global Times, 2021; Dutton, 2021). Nevertheless, when asked to comment on his plans regarding China, Scholz replied that he wants to first and foremost focus on a strong and independent Europe but wished for a continued peaceful co-existence (Global Times, 2021). Chinese commentators, however, do not seem fazed by Scholz’s ambiguous statements.

While China hoped for either the CDU or the SPD to take a strong lead, both parties only obtained roughly one fourth of the votes, turning the Greens and the Free Democrats into the kingmakers for a new coalition government in Berlin. Since both parties are regarded as China-critical, a bumpy period in China-Germany relations is now to be expected (Sina 新闻中心, 2021). However, Chinese commentators know that the Greens will need to cooperate with China to advance in climate issues, while the Free Democrats might be swayed by the economic benefits China can offer. Zhao Junjie, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of European Studies expressed his optimism that the bumpy road ahead will only be short-lived and the trend of stable and overall positive China-Germany relations is likely to continue “as Germany will eventually sway back to rationality“ (Global Times, 2021).

China has its own Way of Analysing European Politics

What we can learn from analysing Chinese sources before and after the election is that the outcome of Germany’s federal election is perceived as important and significant to China. Less important to Chinese commentators are the details behind those outcomes and how they evolved. The stance of German politics towards China is not seen as something dynamic, but rather exogenous. Chinese media thereby depolarizes the stance Germany will take, because it is actively avoiding sensitive topics which determine German-Chinese relations.

While Chinese media is well aware of a possible shift in Germany’s China-policy, the cause behind this transformation remains unclear. The heterogeneity of the German political landscape is another blind spot of the media coverage, which seems to have a winner-takes-all view of German politics. A reason for this might be the cult of personality around Xi Jinping in China, as well as a strong global focus on leaders promoted by the United States, where the president stands in the centre of political activity. In this respect, it is not surprising that Chinese media focuses its attention on personalities such as Scholz and Laschet, expecting them to have the biggest influence in German politics. The potential leverage and power of smaller parties is hereby underestimated.

We also learned that China’s view on the German election consists of apprehension as well as self-confidence. On the one hand, Chinese commentators fear that Germany will lose its role as mediator between the United States and China and will further align with Washington. On the other hand, China is aware of its own strengths, which are unlikely to be affected by a national election in the European Union. Overall, however, Chinese commentators seem optimistic that China’s political and economic influence might be enough to eventually sway the resolve of China-critics in its favour.

Tim Caspers is currently pursuing a Bachelors degree in Asian studies at the university of Bonn, he is currently studying at Nanjing University.

Nora Tenta is a graduate student in East Asian Politics at the Ruhr University Bochum, where she mainly focuses on issues concerning China and Taiwan. In the course of her studies she has also spent time at the Feng China University and National Taiwan University in Taiwan. You can find her on twitter and LinkedIn.

Jonathan Lehrer is a graduate student of International Relations at the Technical University of Dresden, Germany. Previously he studied at Qingdao University and interned at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. You can find Jonathan on twitter.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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