Chancellor Olaf Scholz has never paid so much attention to a single country in one trip. He will be in China for three full days, from Sunday morning to Tuesday evening, heading to three major cities.

In addition to the capital Beijing, we go to Chongqing – with 32 million inhabitants in the center and surrounding areas, probably the most populous city in the world – and to the economic metropolis Shanghai. During his talks in Beijing, the Chancellor will be flanked by three ministers and accompanied throughout the trip by around a dozen top managers.

Why this effort for a country that threatens the democratic island republic of Taiwan, remains loyal to Russia and takes tough action against opposition members and ethnic minorities in its own country?

China is “at the same time a partner, competitor and systemic rival,” says the China strategy, which the traffic light government agreed on last summer after long discussions. In this sense, a Chancellor’s trip to China is always a difficult balancing act between protecting economic interests and the need to take a clear stance at one point or another.

The inaugural visit was just a day trip

It is the Chancellor’s second trip to China since he was sworn in in December 2021. The inaugural visit in November 2022 was only a day trip due to the ongoing corona pandemic. This time he is taking three days to, in addition to his political discussions with state and party leader Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Qiang in Beijing, also visit the locations of German companies and discuss things with students. In Chongqing there is even time for a boat trip on the Yangtze River.

The Chancellor’s only similarly extensive trip to a country was his inaugural visit to Canada, where Scholz also stopped at three places in August last year, but only stayed for around 48 hours in total. If you compare the Scholz trip with the previous trips to China, it no longer seems quite as bombastic. It was already the case with Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel that a trip to China should not be limited to Beijing.

Schröder also had 50 managers in tow

Accompaniment by a business delegation is also standard. Schröder sometimes took 50 managers with him, only to return home with billion-dollar contracts in his luggage. With Merkel, the business delegation usually included 20 to 25 managers.

Things are a little more modest with Scholz. He doesn’t want the trip to be seen as a sales event. Finally, his government aims to reduce economic dependence on China in order to avoid a rude awakening like the cut in Russian gas supplies after the attack on Ukraine.

However, this strategy is not really working for the German economy. The approximately 5,000 German companies in China are more concerned about unfair competitive conditions and exporters are concerned about falling sales figures. Conversely, cheap Chinese electric cars are flooding the European market. The EU Commission has therefore initiated an investigation into possible illegal subsidies. If this results in countermeasures, German car manufacturers in particular fear that this could trigger a trade war. The Chancellor will have to take a position on this in Beijing.

Ukraine: China’s crucial role at peace summit

But the trip isn’t all about economics. What remains a success of the Chancellor’s inaugural visit to Beijing a year and a half ago is that after his conversation with Scholz, Xi opposed Russian threats to use nuclear weapons. This time it will probably be about, among other things, the Ukraine peace conference, which is scheduled to take place in Switzerland in mid-June. Any possible success depends on China’s participation. Scholz is likely to promote exactly this in his discussions.

China remains Russia’s key ally and is seeking to initiate a process to end the conflict. Last year, the Chinese leadership presented a position paper on this issue and sent its special envoy Li Hui to Europe twice – most recently in March.

But China is also suspected of supplying Russia with goods that can also be used militarily. This could also become a topic during the visit. “It’s about China not supporting Russia in waging a brutal war against its neighbor Ukraine,” Scholz told the daily newspaper before the trip. “China can also make it clear that this senseless imperialist war must end.”

Taiwan: China’s threats continue

As far as Taiwan is concerned, Scholz is likely to repeat his warning against the use of force against the island republic. Taiwan’s representative in Germany, Jhy-Wey Shieh, complains that Chinese threats have increased since the Chancellor’s last trip. “Maybe the Chinese didn’t really understand the shot back then,” he says. Therefore, it “wouldn’t be bad if Mr. Scholz would say that again clearly in plain language.”

Human rights: Scholz wants “dialogue on equal terms”

And then, as with every trip, there is the issue of human rights, for example reprisals against members of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang. “For me, a dialogue on equal terms means speaking openly about such topics. My predecessor did the same,” says Scholz.

But German human rights organizations are skeptical. “Our impression is that human rights are hardly a priority for Olaf Scholz,” says David Missal from the Tibet Initiative Germany. He complains that Scholz rejected talks with human rights organizations before the trip and was taking “China-friendly ministers” with him, such as Transport Minister Volker Wissing, who is against the exclusion of the Chinese telecommunications group Huawei from the German 5G network.

The federal government’s China strategy states that it wants to work for human rights and less dependency on China, Missal complains. “Scholz’s trip to China points in exactly the opposite direction.”

Reactions of German politicians

Green Party leader Omid Nouripour urged Scholz to appear confident before his trip to China. “China only takes its counterpart seriously if you formulate your own interests clearly and stand by your own values,” said Nouripour (Saturday). He assumes that Scholz will also address the tough and controversial topics. Nouripour cited China’s relations with Russia as examples. “It must not be the case that China supports Russia’s defense industry directly or indirectly through North Korea and Iran. This would also affect our security interests,” said Nouripour.

The Chinese government is pursuing its own long-term goals with Russia. “Beijing has an interest in Russia becoming a cheap, relatively exclusive gas station for oil and gas,” Nouripour said. The vice chairman of the German-Chinese parliamentary group, Boris Mijatovic, warned that Scholz must address the importance of the international rules-based order. “In addition, it is clear that the human rights violations by the Communist Party in Xinjiang and Tibet as well as the developments in Hong Kong must be addressed by the Chancellor,” said the Green politician of the Funke media group.

Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger also warned against naivety when dealing with China. “The Chinese state uses the findings from science and new technologies such as artificial intelligence not only for the benefit of its population, but also for surveillance, control and influence,” said the FDP politician to the editorial network Germany (RND). The protection of intellectual property and the use of data are still problematic for China. “You always have to be aware of these risks when cooperating with China.”