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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Merkel effect

December 16, 2007

MN HEBBAR (View from Europe)

Khaleej Times - OPINION
15 December 2007


IT WAS only the other day that the chancellery in Berlin had the look of
an impregnable fort. No, there was no threat of a terrorist strike. Nor
was there a whiff of a conspiracy to bring down the government of the
day. But it would be explosive in content and significance. It was
shortly to receive a visitor who would somewhat shake the fulcrum of
Sino-German relations, however briefly.

Enter the Dalai Lama, the revered Tibetan spiritual leader. Chancellor
Angela Merkel honoured his spiritual credentials by receiving him at her
official residence, despite repeated warnings by Beijing to desist from
such a move, under threat of disrupting bilateral relations. With this
simple act, the chancellor struck a blow for Germany’s independent
foreign policy unlike any her predecessors dared to do.

Chancellor Merkel, widely appreciated for her diplomatic approach, has
displayed her deft hand in the handling of crucial questions, whether
it’s the budget crisis in Brussels or a softening of US President Bush’s
stance on climate change, and has produced admirable results. She has
said on record, albeit in a different context, that once someone uses
pressure to influence her mind on an issue, her mind is already made up
to follow her own inclinations. That is precisely what she did in
Berlin. Far from being apologetic, she defended her meeting with the
exiled Tibetan leader by insisting that the promotion of human rights
should rightfully be at the heart of German foreign policy.

Did Merkel reckon with the consequences? She certainly did. But they did
come to haunt the government not long after when Beijing administered a
sharp rebuke to German finance minister Peer Steinbrueck by denying him
a meeting with his Chinese counterpart during his planned visit to China
on official business. The minister was to have been accompanied on the
trip by a sizable delegation of finance industry executives. German
officials admitted that the Chinese leadership remains deeply angry with
Angela Merkel over her meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader.

The weightage given by the chancellor to the observance of human rights
in her foreign policy is no window-dressing. She has last month won
domestic support for her tough stance over human rights and democracy in
relation to Russia as well as China. Her recent statements and those by
her Christian Democratic Party have particularly annoyed the Chinese.

Consider this. On a visit to India last month, the chancellor indirectly
criticised the lack of democracy in China, while a new CDU strategy
paper on Asia notes that China’s political system may not be sustainable
because it is not based on “participation and the protection of human
rights”.

While the Chinese are deepening their influence in Africa, the recent
EU-Africa summit in Lisbon saw the German chancellor, to the surprise of
many African leaders present, castigate the Zimbabwean president Robert
Mugabe for undermining the image of Africa (read “trampling of human
rights") although she was later censured for her comments. It’s always
unpleasant to be at the receiving end of criticism, especially at
international summits. The Chinese were keen observers at Lisbon.

It is not difficult to understand why Merkel has wielded great influence
but not won many friends in an era of political double standards. Given
the fact that China is the dream investment location for entrepreneurs
in the 21st century – even the British business community has already
started readying itself for the long haul by hiring Mandarin-speaking
nannies for their offspring in what must be one of the most far-sighted
perspectives of any mercantile class – Germany’s industrial leaders ask
why the chancellor has let herself in for an argument about values that
could get in the way of the country’s future prosperity. But the lady is
not for turning.

Is then the French president Nicolas Sarkozy a better example to follow
when he trims his sails to harsh realities? He has been careful to
ensure that his own rhetorical nods to universal values do not impinge
on French commercial interests. It was a reflection of Sarkozy’s
political astuteness that when he visited China last month, he
conveniently left his human rights adviser at home. And while Merkel did
not hesitate to criticise Russia for its vitiated conduct of elections
last week, Sarkozy was the first to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his
brilliant success.

Merkel has not shied away from asserting herself even within the unruly
“grand coalition” when her coalition allies openly attacked her over the
Dalai Lama meeting, accusing her of “playing to public opinion” without
regard for the effectiveness of the meeting in improving political or
religious rights on the ground in China. If anything, she has departed
from a discreet approach taken to these issues regarding China and
Russia by former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Indeed, in an unusual break with political protocol, Schroeder, on a
recent visit to China, criticised Merkel by telling the media in Beijing
that it was a “mistake” by the chancellor to have met the Dalai Lama.
Merkel has laughed it off as a pathetic attempt at political
one-upmanship. But Schroeder is known to be a political opportunist.

A cursory look at Chinese history may be salutary in understanding the
Chinese conundrum. If Europeans are ignorant or careless about history,
the Chinese are evidently not. They are yet to forget the pain and
humiliation inflicted on them during an inglorious period of European
imperialism. And it seems to still rankle in Beijing. Given the fact
that the Chinese civilisation long pre-dated its European counterpart,
there is less reason to be startled about China’s rise and
assertiveness. It wants recognition as a great power.

Hence, would it be politically correct to state that to “lecture” the
Chinese about human rights now would be to aggravate the imperialism of
the 19th and 20th centuries with cultural imperialism in the 21st? It
certainly does not make sense. Being sensitive to history is one thing.
But to veer away from human rights today on that account would be sheer
folly.

Sino-German relations have not keeled over by all this Chinese bluff and
bluster? Merkel is on the right side of history. And it redounds to her
credit that she has been steadfast in her political convictions. The
Dalai Lama has only given her a nudge.

M N Hebbar is a Berlin based writer
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