German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel criticized China’s new security laws on Wednesday and urged the government to allow more civil liberties or its society would “run out of air to breathe.”
On the second day of his two-day visit to Beijing, Mr. Gabriel said German firms feared that the new law, which came into force this month and boosts the government’s control over finance, cyber security and a host of other areas, would damage their business in China, one of Germany’s most important markets.
“The individual needs free space,” Mr. Gabriel said in a speech to a conference co-organised by the ruling Communist Party. “China must continue on the path of reforms and openness.”
He called for German firms to be given better access and equal treatment with domestic competitors. “I would wish that companies that have been in the country for a long time are treated no differently from Chinese companies.”
He added that he would welcome greater Chinese investment in Germany. There were historical reasons for German investment in China being 20 times greater, but the time had come to change it, he said.
“The individual needs free space. China must continue on the path of reforms and openness.”
German politicians regularly visit China with large business delegations in tow, and this week’s visit was no different. Mr. Gabriel toured a plant run by German drugs company Bayer near Beijing and signed an agreement with China’s minister for industry and information technology, Miao Wei, to deepen cooperation in “intelligent manufacturing,” dubbed “Industry 4.0” or the fourth industrial revolution in Germany.
But Mr. Gabriel’s trip coincided with a major crackdown on human rights groups. Authorities detained or questioned more than 100 lawyers and activists over the weekend, the latest in a series of steps by President Xi Jinping’s administration to tighten government control over civil society since 2012.
The detentions catapulted human rights to the top of the agenda for Gabriel’s visit. He has often cited the special relationship between his Social Democrats and the Chinese Communist Party, and he said during a previous visit last year that comrades can speak openly with each other.
But apart from appealing and pleading for more respect for human rights, his hands are tied, of course. He met Mr. Xi on Wednesday and Mr. Gabriel’s tone throughout the visit was diplomatic to a fault. Given the terrorist threat China faced, the security law was understandable, he said. But, he added, the law mustn’t choke off creativity. “Creativity needs free minds.”
“I find it very pleasing that we don’t conceal these issues, that we can talk about them,” Mr. Gabriel said in his speech on Wednesday. “That’s a mark of the dialogue between us.”
In dealing with the Communist Party one had to be satisfied with small steps, he said, adding that China had different principles regarding human rights.
The human rights coordinator of the German government, Christoph Strässer, found stronger words: “The extent of the detentions and the public discrediting of the lawyers in the media are without precedent.”
Besides diplomatic nudging, Mr. Gabriel’s visit produced scant concrete progress.
“The extent of the detentions and the public discrediting of the lawyers in the media are without precedent.”
Germany and China may have agreed a partnership to boost innovation this week, but without data security, the integrated production chains envisaged by the Industry4.0 concept will scarcely be possible. And that security is in danger, German politicians and business leaders are warning.
However, China’s economic growth offers a ray of hope to German companies. Its gross domestic product grew 7.0 percent in the second quarter year-on-year, beating analysts’ forecasts of 6.9 percent growth, despite the stock market turmoil, official data released on Wednesday showed.
Consumer spending was the driving force, accounting for 60 percent of growth compared with 51.2 percent in 2014.
“There are signs of stabilizing growth,” analysts at Germany’s Commerzbank wrote in a research note.
But the data had little impact on China’s stock markets, where the leading indices in Shanghai and Shenzhen each fell more than three percent on Wednesday.
“Chinese investors are currently more interested in what measures the government takes to stop the stock market crash,” said Clemens Bundschuh, an analyst at Germany’s Landesbank Baden-Württemberg.
Mr. Gabriel’s next visit is likely to attract greater attention, and offers scope for greater progress: he plans to fly to Iran on Sunday to tap the new trading opportunities resulting from this week’s historic nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers.
Dana Heide is a Handelsblatt correspondent, mostly reporting from Berlin. Stephan Scheuer is a China correspondent for the paper. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.