Germany says it will talk trade as well as human rights with China's Wen Jiabao

By Michael Steininger

China’s Premier Wen Jiabao will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel for dinner Monday night as part of his three-stop European tour, and he is likely to get a warm welcome.

China is one of Germany’s most important trading partners. It is also a powerful investor that could help some of Europe’s debt-stricken economies. And just before the start of the tour, China released the dissidents Ai Weiwei and Hu Jia, a move that is being interpreted in Berlin as a sign of goodwill on Beijing’s part.

“The Chinese have shown in the past that they have good timing for symbolic gestures,” says Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Institute for Foreign Affairs. “But let’s not forget that the charges against Ai Weiwei have not been dropped yet.”

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Even if Mrs. Merkel decides to keep the tone at dinner cordial, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has already announced he would use Tuesday’s German-Chinese government consultations to bring up the issue of human rights in China. “It’s a fact that in spite of his release, Ai Weiwei is still under oppressive restrictions,” Mr. Westerwelle told German newspaper “Die Welt.” “In the past few months, we received a number of alarming and sad news concerning human rights in China. But compared to 15 years ago, the situation has improved.”

In April, German media quoted a personal letter in which Chancellor Merkel asked for Ai Weiwei – a popular artist in Germany, with a guest professorship at Berlin’s University of the Arts – to be set free. The chancellery denied the letter's existence, but did so conveniently late, after the news had spread.

Chinese susceptible to pressure? Probably not.

Professor Sandschneider counsels caution in ascribing the dissidents' release to German pressure. “Whoever believes that Chinese politics can be influenced by exerting pressure on Beijing is underestimating Chinese self-confidence,” he says. “We shouldn’t even try to link issues like trade and human rights. It’s counterproductive. It doesn’t mean we have to be silent, though.”

Government consultations are a form of intensive diplomatic and economic relations that Germany maintains with only a handful of countries like France, Spain, Italy, Poland, the US, and Russia. India joined this circle recently, as did China. The talks in Berlin mark the first time Germany will hold these government consultations with a non-democratic country.

“It’s a new quality of cooperation,” says Christian Dreger, a professor at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. “Germany and China see each other as ‘strategic partners’ now. Around 5 percent of German exports go to China. That is much more than it sounds, given that this figure was about 3 percent 10 years ago.”

But China is not just significant as a trading partner. On Saturday, Mr. Wen visited Hungary, where he announced major Chinese investment in Hungarian government bonds, thus supporting the euro, which is under intense pressure because of the sovereign debt crisis in Greece and other European countries.

“Let’s face it,” says Professor Dreger, ”integrating China into the global economy as much as possible is probably a good way not just to improve the economic situation in Europe, but also the human rights situation in China.”

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