Joshua Wong, one of the most recognizable pro-democracy advocates from Hong Kong, left Germany for the United States on Thursday after a visit that provoked fierce Chinese criticism of Berlin and has raised questions over how the West can confront Beijing over its repressive human rights record.
Wong, who had been in Germany since Monday to rally foreign support for a nearly four-month-old protest movement against encroaching Chinese influence in Hong Kong, had urged German leaders to speak more forcefully against China’s bid to exert control over the semiautonomous territory.
With China-backed authorities in Hong Kong using more violent means to subdue the unrest, the visit was expected to be a diplomatic balancing act for German officials from the start. It also came only days after a subdued and largely business-focused visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to China.
Even though Wong did not meet with Merkel during his Berlin visit, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had a brief encounter with the activist during an event Monday night — which sparked a fierce response from Beijing and the summoning of the German ambassador there.
China also called a rare news conference at its embassy in Berlin, but excluded a journalist from Bild, the German tabloid that had invited Wong to the event where he and Maas met.
“What happened now, I unfortunately have to say, will have negative consequences on bilateral relations and the Chinese side has to react,” Chinese Ambassador Wu Ken said during the news conference on Wednesday. Resorting to unusually confrontational language, he suggested that German politicians who met with Wong may have wanted to “add fuel to the fire and thereby make political capital out of it.”
To some, this week’s diplomatic spat appeared to be triggered by differences in style between the cautious Merkel and Maas, her more spontaneous and vocal foreign minister.
But looming over the fallout of Maas’ meeting were broader questions over how Germany — and other Western nations — should confront Beijing over rights abuses amid deep economic dependency and the growing assertiveness of the Chinese leadership.
“It has always been difficult to navigate this,” said Jan Weidenfeld, an analyst at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies. But in recent months, two new factors have emerged, Weidenfeld said: First, a “greater public scrutiny” in Germany and other countries toward China’s actions; and second, a growing German awareness of European Union pressure on Merkel, as one of the continent’s key leaders, to speak up for Hong Kong.
Those demands from smaller E.U. member states have gained more urgency in recent months, as protests in Hong Kong — initially directed against an extradition bill — turned into a full-blown rebellion against Beijing.
Afraid that the protests could spillover to mainland China, the Beijing has stepped up propaganda efforts and intimidation campaigns against opponents like Wong — a leading figure in the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
In Europe this week, Wong criticized Western powers over what he considers to be their complacency on China’s treatment of critics. Wong could hardly have chosen a more symbolic venue for his own news conference, which took place the same day the Chinese Ambassador lashed out at German officials.
Sitting in Germany’s federal news conference center — located on what was a stretch of no man’s land between East and West Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall — Wong framed his confrontation with Beijing as part of the world’s “new Cold War.”
That symbolism may have struck a nerve with history-conscious Germans, even 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But that appeal runs up against a striking economic reality: Germany relies on Chinese exports more than any other E.U. nation and is now facing the threat of a recession. China was the third-biggest export market for German companies last year, behind the United States and France.
“I understand that business leaders and politicians in Germany worry that if they directly confront China on its human rights abuse it would jeopardize future deals,” said Wong, before adding that the E.U. has a stated commitment to combat human rights abuses.
The vast majority of Merkel’s visit to China last week was dedicated to economic ties, even though Merkel did voice criticism of Beijing’s handling of the unrest in Hong Kong. “I have advocated for a peaceful resolution of conflicts, as everything else would be a catastrophe from my perspective,” Merkel said during her visit.
At the time, she faced little pushback from the Chinese side over her remarks, which is why diplomats were even more stunned by Beijing’s harsh criticism of Merkel’s foreign minister days later. Some saw the unexpectedly harsh condemnations as a sign of things to come. “This is a new way of doing diplomacy,” said Weidenfeld.
In the past, China had often conveyed its displeasure in private. “It’s actually more directed at domestic audiences than at a German audience,” said Weidenfeld. “They care much more about sending those messages back home and showing the people: This is outrageous.”