The previous time I lived in Berlin, in 2000, China had recently bought a building by the Spree River to use for a sprawling new embassy, and the staff would bully the clients of a women-only gym that had a lease on the top floor with verbal insults and by making them undergo intimidating security checks.
The bizarre practice was aimed, apparently, at forcing out the gym and securing use of the entire building for China. It worked. Today, the silver and mirror-clad embassy sparkles by the spinach-colored waters of the Spree, satellite dishes and antennas poking out on top.
I’m back in Berlin, having spent the intervening years reporting in Beijing as China vaulted from sixth place to second in global economic strength, pushing down Germany from third to fourth. Returning to this country from China, I am struck by how Beijing is asserting its interests here in ways that threaten Germany’s core values, going well beyond intimidating gym-going women.
Germany must end Chinese meddling in its hard-earned democracy. Berlin has a stronger hand than many Germans appear to realize: China does not want to lose the good will and cooperation of this technologically strong and politically influential partner in the heart of Europe. Germany should be pushing back against Chinese interference with consistency and strength, just as China does when it feels its core interests are threatened.
In recent months China has sent up a series of trial balloons to see how far it can stretch the boundaries of German democracy. First and most easily spotted: challenges to free speech and political protest on German soil.
Take an incident in November, when the Chinese halted a soccer match between their under-20 team and TSV Schott Mainz in southwestern Germany to protest a handful of Tibetans and German fans with Tibetan “snow lion” flags. China regards the flags as a sign of resistance to its rule in Tibet. The Chinese players returned to the field only after the flags were furled. (China lost, 3-0.)
“Of course we stand by freedom of expression,” Ronny Zimmermann, a vice president of German soccer’s governing body, said afterward. “Our partner hasn’t really been able to get used to it yet.” A planned series of matches has been postponed. Germany has an excellent opportunity to defend democracy by canceling them until China agrees to respect free speech and political protest here.
A month later, in December, the president of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency warned of “a broad attempt to infiltrate regional Parliaments, ministries and administrations” by Chinese agents to recruit German sources using fake social media accounts.
Chinese diplomats have also exerted pressure to stop town halls from flying the snow lion flag on March 10 in commemoration of the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet, said Michael Brand, a member of the federal Parliament, the Bundestag. The Interior Ministry in the southern state of Bavaria asked local governments in 2016 to reconsider the practice after Chinese diplomats contacted the ministry.
The problem, Mr. Brand said in an interview, is “Germany isn’t really defending itself.”
He should know. In 2016, China’s ambassador to Germany told Mr. Brand, who was at the time chairman of the Bundestag’s human rights committee, that he could travel to China only if he canceled certain speaking engagements in Germany and deleted images and words from his official home page.
Mr. Brand refused and was barred from China. He said his government did little in retaliation. About a month after his travel ban, German-Chinese cabinet consultations took place as scheduled in Beijing, with Chancellor Angela Merkel in attendance. It was a missed opportunity: Germany should have skipped the talks as a warning to China to stop interfering in the affairs of elected German officials.
Sure, people here are preoccupied with challenges closer to home, including hard-right populism in Central Europe, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, authoritarian Turkey, a million refugees from the Middle East, an unpredictable Donald Trump and Britain’s plan to leave the European Union.
These are all of concern. Yet none has China’s combination of economic muscle and political authoritarianism.
China became Germany’s most important trading partner in 2016, outranking the United States and France. That year Germany exported about $92 billion in goods to China and imported about $114 billion. Germany is dependent on exports and tends to run trade surpluses around the world — its relationship with China is an exception.
So what may finally focus German minds is “Made in China 2025,” Beijing’s ambitious plan to become the high-tech manufacturing center of the world.
The plan threatens Germany’s long-term prosperity because it aims to substitute technologically advanced goods from Germany and other nations with cheaper Chinese goods, first at home, then throughout the world. When — if — China replaces German technology in electric-powered vehicles, robotics and a host of other engineering, Germany may face tougher times.
Other democracies, notably Australia, are beginning to realize they must push back against the efforts by the secrecy-ridden Communist Party to shape the global narrative about China in order to secure its control at home and abroad.
Germany, as Europe’s central power and biggest economy, should monitor attempts to weaken its democratic system and publicize them so that citizens can educate and protect themselves. It should decline to sell to China economic assets of strategic value, deepen financial transparency in academic research and politics to prevent influence-buying by cash-rich China, and use its standing in Brussels to help smaller European Union members do the same. China will complain loudly but will get the message that Germany is serious about defending democracy.
It’s worth remembering that West Germany banned its own Communist Party in 1956, fearful of the influence of the Soviet Union. No one wants a return of Cold War mentalities, but that history offers a precedent for prohibiting activities here by the Communist Party of China, for example within student associations, as a firm warning to Beijing.
Germany expects students and businessmen from China to live here with democratic values, as most already do, and leave authoritarianism at home.
Otherwise, what will become of those post-World War II German freedoms won at a horrible price to the world and to itself?
Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a former reporter for The New York Times in Beijing, is a fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies.