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Germany’s China challenge: it’s important, but voters don’t care

Geopolitical observers have for months, if not years, earmarked this September’s election as a turning point in German-China relations. Long-serving is not running for re-election as chancellor, and the expectation is that her China policy of “Wandel durch Handel” – “change through trade”, will her reign.

Chancellor Angela Merkel will step down after the election. Photo: Reuters

In Berlin, there is anxiety about how to deal with an increasingly assertive China on issues like human rights, while also maintaining the strong trade ties that have powered both economies for decades.

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But three weeks out from the election, China has been largely ignored during the campaign, which has been dominated by Covid-19, economic recovery, and, now, Afghanistan.

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China did not feature at all in Sunday’s first televised debate between the three : Armin Laschet of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Annalena Baerbock of the Green party.

Surveys and conversations with politicians suggest that while voters are concerned about China, it is far down the list of priorities for most ordinary Germans. In fact, with the recent exception of Afghanistan, politicians say that few voters raise foreign policy issues on the doorstep at all.

“Questions about China or Russia play only a minor role in my campaigning in Duisburg. Questions about these issues are rare. But I myself address these issues time and again in my columns and editorials for German media, for example,” said Lamya Kaddor, a Greens candidate for the city’s north side constituency. “Many people are unaware of the importance of foreign policy and its concrete impact on their lives”.

In a nationwide poll of more than 2,000 voters conducted by INSA in August, “world politics” was ranked as the least important of 12 issues surveyed. The top three were health, old-age security and the environment.

Conversely, Pew Research Centre surveys released in June showed that 71 per cent of Germans hold “unfavourable views” of China – well above average.

Politicians say they struggle to engage voters on foreign policy on the campaign trail. Analysts say they rarely even try.

“We have to talk more about China as it definitely impacts all areas of our lives. Politicians understand that we cannot continue with the neglect of China [issues] in politics, but I think they kind of fail to communicate this to the German public,” said Julia Ganter, editor of the Berlin Pulse, an annual survey on foreign policy sentiment carried out by the Koerber-Stiftung think tank.

“I think the next German government, if it wants to get tougher on China, they need to explain why they perceive China as a challenge,” she added.

The three top candidates, Annalena Baerbock, Armin Laschet, and Olaf Scholz were not asked about China during their first TV debate. Photo: Reuters

In Duisburg, China’s presence is more obvious than in most European cities. This is the end point of Beijing’s and home to the world’s largest inland port. Every day, up to 80 cargo trains funnel goods from China into Duisburg, before they fan out across Europe on barges to Rotterdam or Antwerp, or on trucks that traverse the continent.

Local officials have billed it “the Gateway to Europe for China”, or Germany’s “China City”, and talk ambitiously of attracting hundreds of millions more in Chinese investment in an effort to lift this rust belt town out of its post-industrial stupor – unemployment here runs at 12.1 per cent, double the national rate.

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At the Koenig-Heinrich-Platz, as politicians continue to roll their dice, voters have mixed feelings about China’s presence in the city and how it factors in their country’s future.

Tomicki, a man in his mid-40s who works in the city’s job centre, says a “rising China” is one of his major political concerns, even if he acknowledges that most people don’t share it.

“They don’t see the wave which is coming to them. Those countries [China and Russia], they are rising, and they are very aggressive in their policies. So, if you take a look to the east, although it doesn’t seem to look too bad now, I think there are things coming to us, we are not recognising this at the moment but we should keep an eye on it,” he said.

Thomas, a retired technical engineer who has lived and worked in Shanghai, has no concerns about in Duisburg or in Germany, saying the city should instead focus on restricting the numbers of migrants from Afghanistan or parts of Eastern Europe.

“I think Germany is on the way down and China is on the way up. If they [China] make investments here, it is positive for jobs. In this area you have a lot of unemployment, all these kids in the government are just dreamers. They need to grow up,” he said.

But any issues voters may have about this are not being relayed to their politicians on a regular basis.

“Overall, the topic is not that prominent in political discussions with people,” said Sarah Phillip of the locally dominant SPD and representative for Duisburg’s south side in the North Rhine-Westphalia state parliament, although citizens have on a number of occasions voiced concerns about “possible Chinese influence”.

On one occasion, she was asked: “What do you think, will Duisburg’s port be privatised? Will China buy it?” On another, after a public viewing of a film about the “”, an SPD party member asked her whether the Chinese presence in the city would lead to Chinese politics being implemented on German soil.

“Both examples show that there is a about possible growing [Chinese] influence in terms of politics and economy,” Phillip said.

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But Jens Geier, an SPD member of the European Parliament, has never had a voter ask him about the economic opportunities or threats posed by China.

“You have activists on the ground for human rights and of course they are talking to you about votes in the European Parliament when it comes to China issues, but I never, ever met anyone telling me that they are concerned about their jobs because of issues related to China,” Geier said.

On a dreary Friday morning, a Deutsche Bahn train traverses the Ruhr Valley towards the city of Remscheid, a 90-minute ride from Duisburg. Between Solingen and Remscheid, the train crosses over the Muengsten Bridge, Germany’s highest steel truss bridge – built with 5,000 tonnes of locally produced steel in the 1890s.

“The steel plants are probably in China now,” jokes Juergen Hardt, the conservative CDU’s member for Remscheid and the party’s parliamentary spokesperson on foreign affairs.

The city is smaller than Duisburg, with a handful of “hidden champions” — highly successful but little known companies, in this case relying on exports of machinery parts to China. But here, too, voters are nonplussed when it comes to foreign policy issues, China included, Hardt said.

“What we have seen over the past five to seven years, is more aggressive behaviour from China on trade and also on questions of international politics and international influence. Nobody can question that China wants to play a significant visible role in the international order in the future,” he said.

“But it’s always a challenge in politics: some developments are visible on the horizon, but are not yet in the mind or the mood of the people on the street.”

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