On a Thursday in October 2019, ten men and one woman came together in an office building on Kurfürstendamm. You want to found an association, the „China Bridge (Chinabrücke) „. In the statutes that they adopt, it is stated that the association wants to „promote understanding for Germany and the European Union in China as well as understanding for China in Germany and the European Union“ and thus make a contribution to German-Chinese friendship. The model should be the Atlantik-Brücke (Atlantic Bridge) , which has been dedicated to friendship with the USA for decades. The Bundestag Vice President Hans-Peter Friedrich (CSU) is elected chairman, and Michael Schumann, head of the Federal Association for Economic Development and Foreign Trade, is elected as the first deputy. The office of treasurer is taken over by the FDP member of the Bundestag, Alexander Kulitz, who is the spokesman for foreign trade in his parliamentary group.
At the end all those present are elected to the board. The former SPD MP Johannes Pflug, who is now the City of Duisburg’s China Representative, and Carsten Senz, Head of Corporate Communications at Huawei Germany, will also be there. Managers from SAP and Alibaba are also on the China Bridge board. Names of the members remain confidential Friedrich reports that the idea to found the company arose from discussions with several people who have been involved with China for a long time. “We need more China expertise in Germany,” says the former Minister of the Interior and Agriculture. „I have the impression that there is a great deal of interest in discussions in China.“ In August 2019 it turned out that Schumann had also developed the idea of founding a counterpart to the Atlantik-Brücke at the same time. Schumann had gathered a few business representatives around him, and the draft statutes were already ready. The two initiatives joined forces. Kulitz, who, unlike Friedrich, belongs to the Atlantik-Brücke, was astonished that there was no such association with a connection to China. China is „one of the emerging powers“ and such a network is „long overdue“.
Today the China Bridge has about 30 members. Among them are politicians from almost all parliamentary groups, emphasizes Friedrich. But he doesn’t want to give names. „We have agreed to keep the names of the members confidential.“ The China Bridge is an exclusive club that not everyone can join. Donations from Chinese companies? „This is critical“ The board of directors wants to take a close look at who is being admitted and specifically address people. „The China-Brücke wants to create networks based on trust,“ says Kulitz. It is not a „lobby association“ that the members can use to enforce their own interests. So far, the association has only been financed by membership fees. The board of directors hopes for donations from companies – albeit with reservations: „We are critical of donations from Chinese companies,“ emphasizes Kulitz.
With Huawei and the Alibaba Group, however, German branches of Chinese companies are represented on the board. The board of trustees is headed by management consultant Roland Berger, his deputy is the China expert Eberhard Sandschneider. The committee also includes the former Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin (SPD) and the CSU MEP Monika Hohlmeier. „We want to develop communication channels with decision-makers“ The China Bridge should be a platform and create a network for all organizations that already exist in the German-Chinese relationship, says Friedrich. The association also wants to promote the exchange of students, schoolchildren, journalists and scientists. „We want to establish channels of communication with decision-makers in the social, economic and political areas in China.“ These channels should make it possible „to exchange information in a confidential way, regardless of daily political storms“. The fact that personal meetings are not possible in the corona crisis makes the start more difficult. The politicians belonging to the China Bridge/ China-Brücke have already drawn up a position paper which Friedrich summarizes as follows: “In the conflict between China and the USA, we see the danger that we will find ourselves in a new division of the world. We consider it important that the EU is a bridge builder here and that it plays its own role. „
The EU needs a common stance on the Silk Road Initiative. „The EU must take into account the fact that China will be an important shaping power of the 21st century.“ The association wants to position itself in this way in time for the EU-China summit in September. How to deal with China is one of the central questions of European foreign policy. As the conflict between Washington and Beijing intensifies, the Europeans are still looking for their way. At the same time, you are dealing with a state that aggressively represents its interests in Europe. Chinese diplomats recently tried to get German government officials to make positive statements about China’s handling of the pandemic. Controversial topics shouldn’t be taboo either According to the European External Action Service, China is relying on disinformation in the corona crisis. But the corresponding report was weakened under pressure from Beijing. The relationship is also burdened by the massive human rights violations against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang as well as the restriction of civil liberties in Hong Kong.
How does the China Bridge intend to deal with issues such as Hong Kong and the situation in Xinjiang? „It is imperative that we also deal with highly controversial topics,“ says Friedrich. However, the China Bridge does not intend to pursue foreign policy in any way. Kulitz points out that some members of the Atlantik-Brücke view US President Donald Trump critically, but that the association does not make any statements on current politics. Who is the partner in China? It is not the job of the China Bridge to comment on the politics of the day. „In addition, it is important to take cultural differences into account in the context of international understanding.“ In China, openly expressed criticism is usually not expedient and is considered an affront. „Whether we are talking to the USA or China: We will always have certain differences,“ says the FDP MP. There are also “open human rights issues” in the USA.
If the club builds a bridge, who is on the other side? The Atlantik-Brücke (Atlantic Bridge) has a partner in the USA with the American Council on Germany. On the other hand, the situation for the China Bridge is more difficult and will have to work with various partners, says Kulitz. „The China-Brücke must not allow state institutions to stretch it in front of the cart.“ With this problem, the association is more reminiscent of the German-Russian Forum than of the Atlantik-Brücke. But Kulitz does not want to compare the China Bridge with the DRF. „It is important that the China-Brücke must not become an“ forefront organization „for Chinese interests.“
China expert Didi Kirsten Tatlow does not believe that the association can make itself independent of state interests: „It is not possible to have a real dialogue with Chinese actors without the government and the party being directly or indirectly involved.“ Activity in China is under the control of the Communist Party. The organizers of the China-Brücke should be asked, „How do they want to ensure that they are not controlled and manipulated,“ says Tatlow, who is a senior fellow at the German Society for Foreign Policy. At the same time, she warned that China would try to use the new association as a “tool for influencing Germany”. At the beginning of May, Friedrich gave an interview to the German-language online edition of “People’s Daily”, the organ of the Communist Party of China. In it, the Bundestag Vice President not only praised Beijing’s fight against poverty, but also replied to the question of how he felt about statements that Beijing was responsible for the corona pandemic: „At the present time, it can only be said that China is in favor of its fight against it Virus deserves praise. „
The “China Bridge” has big goals. The association wants to promote the „understanding of Germany and the European Union in China“ and at the same time promote the „understanding of China“ in Europe. The model of the network is the Atlantik-Brücke, which has been taking care of the transatlantic relationship since 1952. The goals are big, but the information about the organization is manageable: only the board of directors around the Bundestag Vice-President and CSU politician Hans-Peter Friedrich is known. There is no website or public membership list. The China Bridge operates largely below the threshold of perception – and this is precisely where criticism is growing. „We are very concerned about the fact that the network is not acting transparently,“ said Ulrich Delius, director of the Society for Threatened Peoples, to the Federal Government’s human rights commissioner, Bärbel Kofler. The letter, dated June 22, is available at the Handelsblatt. Delius warns of „Chinese conditions in lobbying“. In particular, it remains unclear „with whom the network will cooperate as a partner in China, since everyone knows about the catastrophic state of a totally controlled civil society“. Delius asks Kofler to encourage the „known members of the network to be more transparent“. Because: „Anyone who deliberately refuses this transparency must accept the accusation of using controversial methods of the Chinese power and security apparatus.“
The corruption allegations against the CDU MP Philipp Amthor have recently shed new light on the business of influencing parliament. Delius also refers to this when he refers to the “current debate about the limits of lobbying”. Hans-Peter Friedrich, board member of China-Brücke, firmly rejects the allegations. “There are no secret operations, we have absolutely nothing to hide. Nevertheless, we are constantly suspected of doing something disreputable, ”said Friedrich the Handelsblatt. The aim of the China-Brücke is not primarily to work in public. Rather, „in the sense of international understanding and in view of the fact that China is an essential global shaping factor, channels of communication with the Chinese leadership that can be used independently of the development of daily politics,“ said Friedrich. That is precisely why it is important to illuminate issues such as human rights in a differentiated manner.
Under President Xi Jinping, the character of the Chinese regime has changed: China has become more repressive and uses high-tech for surveillance. Minorities like the Uyghurs are oppressed. In Hong Kong, China is taking action against the democracy movement. In dealing with Taiwan, in the South China Sea, but also in Europe, an aggressive course is evident. For example, Beijing is specifically trying to use the corona crisis to gain influence. At the same time, China remains an important market for the German economy and an indispensable partner in climate protection. Friedrich assures: “We are not there to carry out Chinese propaganda in Germany, nor are we there to publicly convert the Chinese.” The China Bridge is “as transparent as any other association”. It is in the association register with its statutes, and the board of directors is also named there. Overall, the China Bridge has around two dozen members, including scientists, business representatives and politicians. The association has not yet had a partner organization in China and has not accepted any Chinese money.
Nevertheless, the criticism from human rights activists continues. “The China-Brücke/China Bridge is an absolutely non-transparent association, run exclusively by economic interests, which, according to everything I know so far, speaks Beijing to the mouth,” says Green Party politician Margarethe Bause. CDU politician Michael Brand is even clearer. He speaks of „conspiratorial“ structures that are „extremely problematic, even dangerous“. If the China Bridge does not want to run the risk of „becoming Beijing’s 5th column“, it must „quickly put the cards on the table“. One thing is certain: it will not be easy for the club to dispel the distrust. „The China-Brücke tries to push through a different, more positive narrative about China,“ says Mikko Huotari, director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics) in Berlin. But the association is currently acting on the defensive because of the opinions in Germany and Europe The German economy is also rethinking its position on China.
The new bridge is therefore in competition with think tanks such as Merics, which have been critically accompanying China’s development for years and advising German and European politics. „There is definitely a competition about the correct image of China in Germany,“ says Huotari, „and the members of the China-Brücke consider the criticism of China’s behavior to be exaggerated and want to correct it.“ Friedrichs Verein can fall back on prominent helpers. In addition to SAP manager Andreas Hube, representatives of the Chinese companies Huawei and Alibaba are among the „bridge builders“. Professor Eberhard Sandschneider, East Asia expert at the Free University of Berlin, is one of them. At the moment the new association is exploring how it can influence the discourse in discussions with journalists and think tanks. In addition, one is looking for financially strong partners in business. The China Bridge has so far been financed primarily through membership fees. Board member Friedrich already assured in January: „China does not finance us and does not write our script“.
It remains to be seen if the China Bridge will become the 5th column of Beijing in Germany and Europe in the framework of the CPC´s United Front or a organization which promotes equidistance to the USA and China and a strong European sovereign position between the superpowers as mediator and bridge builder or just a corrupt lobby organization for hire and sale. However it is interesting that Friedrich Merz, member of the Atlantkbrücke(Atlantic Bridge) who in the beginning promoted the idea of a China Bridge/Chinabrücke now takes a strong stance on China and calls it “a serious threat to freedom and peace in the world” :
“The Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 100th anniversary this week. The party is celebrating a birthday party on Tiananmen Square, which should leave no doubt about the political power of the CP and its chairman Xi Jinping. Xi is the only party member among the party officials to wear the Mao suit, and the stage was set up above a larger than life picture of the founder of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong. The message is clear: China is back on the way to Mao Zedong.
Mao suit and Mao images had slowly faded into the background in public image before Xi Jinping’s term in office. But since the time limit in office was lifted, Xi has never missed an opportunity to present himself as the true heir of the CCP’s founder. Even in the brutality of his claim to power, Xi is hardly inferior to his great role model. It is becoming more and more difficult to look inside the CP, the party completely isolates itself from the outside world. Under the guise of fighting corruption, critics inside and outside the party are mercilessly sorted out, they disappear in the numerous camps and prisons. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are oppressed and imprisoned in „re-education camps“. In no other country in the world is the death penalty used as often as in China.
These events are by no means „internal affairs“ of the People’s Republic, just as little as the country’s foreign policy behavior. Contrary to the internationally binding agreements in the Treaty on the Return of Hong Kong (“One Country – Two Systems”), the democracy movement there has been persecuted and imprisoned with increasing brutality for years. The rhetoric of Xi in his speech on the 100th anniversary of the CP against Taiwan also gives an idea of how the state leadership envisions „peaceful reunification“. The behavior of China in the south and south-east China Sea with the expansion of small uninhabited islands in international waters into major military airports shows the true face of this government: China has grown into the most aggressive political power in the world. That can all change again, no one can reliably estimate how long the CP can maintain and enforce its claim to power in the country itself. There is probably a fair amount of fear for one’s own power behind the aggressive rhetoric. The events of June 1989 on this Tiananmen Square are omnipresent in the memory of the country – with the perpetrators as well as the victims. But for the foreseeable future, we in Europe must not be under any illusions: China is not just a competitor and system competitor. China, under the current leadership of the CP, is a serious threat to freedom and peace in the world. Our freedom is threatened primarily by disinformation and cyber attacks in the digital network. The most important consequence of this situation for us is: We must not allow ourselves to be intimidated. And we as Europeans must resolutely defend our freedom together with the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.”
Some sort of litmus test for the independence of the China Bridge was, if they allow Friedrich Merz to join the board. However, we never heard of that.