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Germany’s Merkel tightens ties with China, but slights rights

- - Tuesday, September 11, 2012

BERLIN — Germany's relationship with China has grown so close that Berlin now calls it "special," but the coziness has some Germans concerned about Chancellor Angela Merkel's refusal to bring up human rights with Asia's biggest power.

"What we heard from Chinese officials was basically that she's fallen into line," said Hans Kundnani, an analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations in London, referring to Mrs. Merkel. "She understands China more. She knows where the red lines are, and she doesn't cross them."

Mrs. Merkel has made six visits to China since taking office in 2005 and has easy access to Communist Party decision-makers because of the increasing "depth and breadth" of the consultations between the countries, German officials said before a trip last week to China, where she met with Premier Wen Jiabao and his likely successor, Li Keqiang, the senior vice premier.

"Germany is the only country with whom China holds comparable government talks [on this scale]," said a German official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

The special relation is a result of several factors relating to economic power, trade and business practices.

"Germany has been the most successful country economically since the financial crisis in 2008," said Horst Lochel, an economics professor at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management.

"The Chinese think that Germany can inject a certain amount of stability [into the eurozone] and that it has a crucial role [in deciding] what direction the eurozone will take."

Besides propping up the eurozone of 17 European nations that use the euro currency, the Chinese-German relationship is grounded in mutual self-interest, analysts say. Trade between the two nations has boomed in recent years. China is now Germany's second-biggest supplier and its fifth-biggest customer. Trade between the two nations jumped 11 percent last year.

Germany also has expertise in producing the high-end manufactured goods that are in demand in China, German business representatives say.

"German goods fit with what's needed in China right now. Machines and plant-building firms are right up there, along with small- to medium-sized mechanics firms," said Ilja Nothnagel, a foreign trade specialist at the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Berlin.

"And because people in China like to show off that they've made it China is one of the most important export markets for German cars."

Chinese investment in Germany also has shown a rapid upturn. Chinese companies are buying into increasingly more small- to medium-sized German companies, the backbone of the German economy. Economists say Chinese investors have been lured into the market by the successful small family-owned companies that employ the bulk of German workers.

"They're looking around the world for small niche-market leaders that expand their knowledge of business in other countries where they believe that they can buy know-how," said Peter Englisch, an analyst with the consulting company Ernst & Young.

Germans and Chinese also share a similar approach to money matters.

"The Germans are a very cautious lot who tally up everything and have to think over a purchase three times before they buy it -- and that's perhaps a little bit similar in China," said Mr. Lochel, who spent nearly a decade in China.

Germany also thinks China may do more than Britain or the United States to shore up the euro and ease the euro crisis.

Chinese government investments are unknown. But in the past, China propped up southern European debtors, taking losses on Greek bonds, German officials say.

Still, in her rush to cozy up to China, Mrs. Merkel has underplayed human rights concerns, critics say.

"She still talks occasionally about human rights, but the Chinese officials and analysts we talked to suggested that was for domestic media consumption, but they didn't take it too seriously," Mr. Kundnani said.

The German government insisted that Mrs. Merkel is committed to human rights in China.

"Questions of human rights and social development are always on the agenda," said a government official, who asked not to be identified because he was not permitted to be quoted by name.

"The intensity [of those discussions] has not changed. The close relationship between the chancellor and the prime minister has even led to a situation where all questions are put on the agenda and discussed."

German opposition lawmakers say that other human rights matters, including political prisoners, should have been tackled with the Chinese government during last week's visit.

"Human rights was a minor issue in her trip," said Tom Koenigs, chairman of the German parliament's human rights committee. "We cannot stop exchanging views on human rights.

"It's a question of face-saving," he said. "The Chinese are always very fond of face-saving issues. For us, it is a face-saving issue that we keep our values."

• Sumi Somaskanda in Berlin contributed to this report.