Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel has been under pressure from the opposition parties to push for a stronger defense of human rights when she holds a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a summit billed by Merkel as the first ever EU-Chinese meeting focused on climate and trade.
As the organizer of the EU summit expect the coronavirus pandemic will be sufficiently under control to avoid cancelation or the need to hold a virtual meeting when Xi would attend the EU Summit in Leipzig, Germany, in September.
But even if the meeting can be held safely, the coronavirus issue—and existing concerns about Beijing’s human rights abuses—may yet be obstacles to the climate or trade agreements both sides are keen to reach.
The chancellor—who has said she will leave her post in 2021 after what will be 21 years in the top job—is under pressure from opposition lawmakers to hold Xi to account for his totalitarian regime’s abuse of human rights.
Germany should use its “weight” within the EU and its control of the rotating presidency—which will pass to Berlin July—to push back against China’s “systematic human rights abuses, repression, total surveillance and censorship,” said Green Party lawmaker Margarete Bause.
Bause made the remarks after the government replied to a Green parliamentary question about the summit. The government told Bause that the Leipzig meeting would be an “event of the EU under the presidency of the European Council of Ministers” and that it had observed with “concern” a “weakening of international human rights standards” in China.
But Bause told SZ that the response was not strong enough, accusing the government of pretending to be sitting at a “side table in Brussels” and failing to bring its political influence to bear.
The chairman of the Bundestag’s human rights committee, Free Democrat lawmaker Gyde Jensen, told SZ that Merkel must tell Xi that “human rights are not negotiable” for the EU.
The bloc has previously condemned repressive Chinese policies towards Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, despite protests from Beijing.
Jensen also said that Merkel should question China’s role in the coronavirus pandemic. Various European lawmakers—including EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas—have backed calls for an investigation into COVID-19’s origin in recent weeks.
China has been accused of failing to properly warn the international community of the threat posed by the outbreak, underreporting its own number of infections and deaths, and spreading disinformation about the pandemic.
EU officials have refrained from attacking Beijing in the same way as President Donald Trump’s administration. The president and key allies, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have blamed China for the pandemic and claimed—without presenting any evidence—that the virus escaped from a research laboratory in Wuhan.
To date, most experts have suggested the virus began at a wildlife market in the city, where the sickness jumped from bats to humans possibly via an intermediary animal like a pangolin. Researchers are still trying to definitively chart the course of the disease, which so far has infected more than 4.1 million people worldwide and killed more than 283,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Beijing has repeatedly rejected any suggestion it mishandled the outbreak or in any way misled the international community. Last week, China’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said Beijing would not prioritize an international probe into the outbreak until “final victory” had been achieved.
The Chinese government is pivoting to assist other nations worldwide, having largely contained its own initial outbreak. Chinese officials are trying to dodge blame for the outbreak and avoid a potential diplomatic backlash.
According to Reuters, an internal government report earlier this month warned that Beijing is facing its most significant public relations crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Also last week, the Chinese ambassador to the EU urged the bloc to deepen ties with China to better protect against future pandemics and to recover from the economic dislocation of the pandemic. But his message was undermined when the state-backed China Daily newspaper censored a letter co-signed by European diplomats for suggesting that the virus originated in the country.
The EU and China have been negotiating a significant investment deal since 2013, and leaders had hoped it could be signed off in Leipzig during Xi’s visit. But coronavirus and the political fallout from the pandemic could threaten what was already a complicated negotiation.
Both sides will be keen on the economic benefits of the trade deal. Even the world’s richest economies are facing fearsome contractions over the coming year as a result of coronavirus disruption, and the Chinese market offers huge opportunities for European firms even if the government in Beijing is less than palatable.
Jurgen Hardt—the foreign policy spokesperson for Merkel’s conservative coalition in parliament and a member of the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union party—stressed that Germany needs “to strengthen international cooperation, also with challenging partners like China,” in such difficult times, Deutsche Welle reported.
Hardt did, however, add that September’s summit must contain “clear text” including insisting that China is transparent on the origin and course of the pandemic.