Berlin To Beijing: The Double Meaning Of Merkel's China Policy

The German chancellor is the driving force behind a controversial investment agreement between China and EU, which is recognizing Beijing's true intentions too late.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel standing in front of a Chinese flag
Daniel-Dylan Böhmer

Chapter 1: The unknown quantity

The year is 2012. Angela Merkel sits on an ornate, high-backed chair in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Opposite her is someone who until now has been almost unknown in Europe, a man by the name of Xi Jinping. Merkel spends half an hour talking with the politician who is soon to be the most powerful figure in China.

At that time, Germany's dealings with China were going well. Since coming to power in 2005, Merkel had visited the country almost every year, watching its rise to superpower status. She had experience working with the country's leadership, having met President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on multiple occasions.

The German chancellor had a particularly good relationship with Wen, and opened the Hanover Trade Fair with him in 2012. What she didn't know at the time was that the era of conciliatory relations overseen by Hu and Wen was coming to an end. Xi's ascent announced the return of an older type of Chinese politician: an emperor who exercised absolute power, both within the country and internationally.

Xi has ruled like an emperor.

At that meeting in the Great Hall of the People, Xi was still an unknown quantity, however. And many international onlookers, including in Europe, hoped he would usher in an era of greater openness.

In 2013, the EU entered into negotiations with China about a new trade deal, designed to open China up to European investment and ensure that European companies received fairer treatment in China. It was an attractive idea: Even now, despite interference from Beijing, despite widespread theft of intellectual property, China is a highly attractive market. How much more so if we could do fair, free trade with it in the future?

Chapter 2: Wishful thinking

This dream of a lucrative future blinded Merkel to the present. But there were already reasons to be skeptical. In his first year in power, Xi launched the Belt and Road initiative, also known as the New Silk Road.

The aim was to create a giant trade network linking Asia, Europe and Africa over land and sea. One part of the project made the EU sit up and listen: the 17+1 Initiative, where China set its sights on European countries, including 12 in the EU. Targeting poorer countries in the region, Beijing aimed to bring them under its wing through billions of euros of infrastructure investment.

Merkel receiving then Chinese President Hu Jintao before the outreach session at G8, in 2007 — Photo : Action Press

The initiative was an attempt to divide Europe, and little by little, the EU — and Angela Merkel — began to recognize this. When she visited Beijing in 2015, she noted that China was creating "groups' within the EU. "I just want to say that you can also deal with the EU as a whole," she said.

It was a subtle admonishment, no more than that. The EU continued to negotiate the investment deal, while China's influence continued to grow in Eastern Europe, from Tallinn in the North to Athens in the South.

Chapter 3: The rift

Towards the middle of the decade, Xi's intentions were no longer in doubt. He ruled like an emperor, with absolute power, pursuing a nationalist agenda domestically and an imperialistic one on the world stage. But he had hidden this well for many years, and it took Brussels and Berlin time to see through him.

In 2015 Beijing announced the economic plan Made in China 2025, which aimed to establish the country as a leader in cutting-edge industries and technology. Berlin and Brussels began to fear that European companies would be left out in the cold.

2017 was another turning point, when the Communist Party conference showed that the cult of personality around Xi was now on a level with that of Mao Tse-tung. China was taking a step backwards, rather than opening up. Within the country there were crackdowns on freedom of expression.

In the meantime, Beijing still tried to put on a good face abroad. "China's aim is not to export the Communist one-party state to the EU," said a high-ranking EU diplomat. "What Beijing wants is stable markets, and open doors for trade to improve its own citizens' quality of life." Its aim was apparently a "China-friendly Europe."

Slowly though it dawned on the Europeans that their strategy of "change through trade" was naive, and they began to take action. In December 2017, new trade rules came into force against subsidized imports from China. And in the spring of 2019, the EU published a strategy paper in which China was referred to not only as a partner and competitor, but for the first time as a "systemic rival."

Still, many Europeans clung to their illusions, and nothing really changed. Europe wanted to keep the investment deal alive at all costs, particularly Germany, as its car industry has especially strong links with China. When talking about China, the word "rival" never passed Merkel's lips.

Chapter 4: A sudden breakthrough

2019 saw Merkel's last visit to China before the coronavirus hit. She criticized Beijing's actions in Hong Kong and its treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. And yet, the chancellor was still trying to breathe life back into the investment deal, which had been languishing for years.

Over the following months, she quietly put together an agreement with Xi behind the scenes, in close cooperation with her ally in Brussels, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. And last year, politicians worked through Christmas to get the deal finished. Merkel made it clear that once Germany's presidency of the Council of the European Union came to an end on Dec. 31, there would be no further movement.

At the last second, one day before the end of 2020, the EU and China announced an "agreement in principle" over the investment deal. It made a bad impression, looking like a reward for China disregarding the international community over Hong Kong and human rights violations against the Uyghurs.

The agreement was a blow for the incoming U.S. president. Joe Biden wanted to work together with the EU in taking a stricter approach to China. Although the agreement's content in terms of investment protection and joint ventures was miles behind what the Europeans had hoped for, Merkel still believed it was the right thing to do. For her, one thing counted above all: China was the EU's most important trade partner.

Chapter 5: A very public quarrel

March 2021 saw the first meeting between new U.S. foreign minister, Antony Blinken, and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi. The summit, in the U.S. state of Alaska, escalated quickly, with Blinken and Yang exchanging accusations in front of stunned journalists. "Don't meddle in China's internal affairs," Yang said. The sentence became a slogan for Chinese nationalists. They printed it on T-shirts, tote bags and umbrellas.

"That was a turning point. In Anchorage, Beijing made a clear statement to the West: We won't let you dictate to us. We abide by our own rules," says Reinhard Bütikofer (Green Party), chair of the European Parliament's delegation for relations with China. Shortly afterwards it all blew up.

German Uyghurs demonstrating at Munich's Marienplatz, August 8, 2020 — Photo : Sachelle Babbar

For the first time in 30 years, the EU imposed sanctions against four Chinese officials due to human rights violations. In practice, however, these sanctions were toothless. Unlike the American version, Europe's sanctions list didn't include the powerful and apparently brutal Communist Party chief in the Uyghur province of Xinjiang. The German Chancellor's office intervened in Brussels and argued for more lenient measures.

But Beijing was enraged, and in retaliation, issued sanctions against 14 European individuals and institutions, including many EU officials. In the meantime, the European Parliament still needed to ratify the investment deal.

On April 29, party leaders in the European Parliament discussed how to proceed, and there was a heated discussion. "The officials who are subject to sanctions are our heroes," said Manfred Weber, leader of the largest party in the European Parliament. With the exception of the Left Party, all parties agreed to keep the investment deal off the agenda for the foreseeable future.

Chapter 6: Disillusionment?

In early May, at a meeting in London, the foreign ministers of the G7 states issued a statement. It was a day of reckoning for China, the opposite of Beijing's demands in Anchorage that the West stay out of Chinese politics. The foreign ministers demanded a UN inspection of the Uyghur camps and called for Beijing to "participate constructively in the rules-based international system."

And the German chancellor? She is still fighting for the investment deal. This week, "despite all the difficulties," she described the investment deal "that will now surely be ratified" as "a very important undertaking." As Michael Roth (SPD), minister of state for Europe at the German Federal Foreign Office, explains: "Overall, the German government still supports the agreement."

A window of opportunity is closing for China.

Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go to get it ratified, and it's clear that nerves are frayed. "China has taken a much tougher line and in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis it has pushed its global agenda forward," says Roth. He says the EU must act decisively to protect its interests. "This will decide what place the EU occupies long-term on the world stage." Roth further explains there is no need for additional sanctions at the moment, but they are keeping their options open if further steps are necessary to protect human rights.

With Germany's elections coming up in September, a window of opportunity is closing for China. "Angela Merkel is currently Beijing's biggest supporter in Europe," says Bütikofer. Many in Brussels agree. She is seen as one of China's protectors, along with French President Emmanuel Macron, who she eventually persuaded to support the investment deal. But Macron is under pressure domestically. And within Germany the tide of opinion may be turning against Merkel's investment deal.

"I expect Germany's policy towards China to be more critical in future, regardless of who is in power," says Bütikofer.

Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee, believes that Germany's election results won't change the fundamental conflict between China and the West. "China is a big, powerful country which challenges the world order," he says.

"Europe, the United States and other states that want to maintain order on the world stage through mutually agreed rules have to confront the Chinese strategy — of replacing these international rules with power and national interests," Röttgen adds.

This means that the investment deal with China must come with clear conditions, namely that the agreement can only be ratified if China withdraws sanctions against EU officials.

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Oui-haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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