To see Putin in the Kremlin, by train to Kyiv or to see the Saudi crown prince in Jeddah: Chancellor Scholz has already made a number of demanding journeys. But China has a very special level of difficulty.
It is a very special reception that Chancellor Olaf Scholz is given at Beijing Airport. People in white protective suits roll out the red carpet in front of his government plane. However, it takes a few minutes before he can enter it. Scholz first has to do a third PCR test to enter China – after two, 24 hours apart before leaving Berlin. The sample is taken by a doctor who has traveled from Germany – albeit under Chinese supervision.
So far there has only been one chancellor’s trip where it went the same way: when Scholz visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Moscow Kremlin in February – just a few days before the Russian attack on Ukraine. Despite negative tests, the two later talked at a huge table six meters apart.
A similar distance apart, Scholz and Xi take their seats as they gather for their talk in the Great Hall of the People. Even the greeting is distant. No handshake, not even a fist, just a steady look. After all, unlike the members of their delegations, the two are not wearing masks.
The opening words are polite. There will be talks about further development of economic relations, but differences will not be avoided, says Scholz. “That’s the aim of a good exchange.” For lunch in the Golden Hall there are strips of beef in mustard sauce, freshwater prawns and fried sweet and sour fish. You don’t get to know much more at first.
At the place where Xi and Scholz dine, the Chinese head of state cemented his power just two weeks ago at the Communist Party conference. The 69-year-old now has a third term in office. The future management team is entirely in line with him. The president is as powerful as Mao Tsetung before, who, however, plunged the country into chaos.
Scholz is the first western head of government to pay his respects to the president since the party conference. Critics see this as pandering to an increasingly sinister absolute ruler. Scholz believes that you also have to talk to difficult people, at least when they are as powerful as Xi Jinping and when they govern a country on which Germany is economically more dependent than it ever was on Russia. The “intensive exchange” is important, says Scholz at the meeting with Xi.
His radius of movement in Beijing is very limited. The Chancellor can only commute between the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse and the Great Hall of the People. This is also due to the tough Chinese Corona regime. Scholz and the accompanying employees, entrepreneurs and journalists – a total of more than 60 people – are strictly sealed off during their eleven-hour stay. Anyone who enters this “Chancellor Bubble” has to be in quarantine for ten days. At least almost everyone – also on the Chinese side.
And another curiosity: In order to avoid the quarantine for the crew, the Chancellor’s government aircraft is parked in South Korea while it is waiting – 1000 kilometers as the crow flies from Beijing.
Scholz is accompanied by twelve top managers who are pursuing interests worth billions. For them, a seat in the business class of the government plane is worth its weight in gold. Beijing is closely watching who the chancellor is honoring. This can be very helpful as a door opener. Twelve were selected from around 100 applicants. Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank, BASF, BMW, Siemens. There are almost only heavyweights of the German economy.
For Scholz, however, the economic convoy in tow is also a mortgage. Even if the group of managers is much smaller than usual: the impression that Scholz is also coming as a traveling salesman cannot be disputed. So far it hasn’t bothered anyone. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder even traveled there in two planes because he wanted to take as many CEOs with him as possible.
Now that’s different. At least since the party conference, Scholz has been clear that he cannot continue the pragmatic course of his predecessor Angela Merkel (CDU), which was focused on economic cooperation, towards China. The Middle Kingdom is becoming more and more sinister. China puts national interests above everything else, is taking ever more rigorous action against members of the opposition and minorities, and openly threatens Taiwan with an invasion. Fears of a Russia scenario, only much worse, are growing. “Russia is the storm, China is climate change,” said Thomas Haldenwang, President of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
In the chancellor’s environment, the short trip to Beijing is described as an “exploratory trip”. Find out what is still possible. A sticking point will be how Xi Jinping is dealing with Putin. Scholz is hoping for a signal, a reminder to Putin not to take things too far. That could be important, especially before the important G20 summit in Bali in two weeks, when the two will meet again and Putin may also be there. However, the chances of success are considered by experts to be low.
Criticism of the trip has also come from Chinese dissidents in the past few days, who even wrote to Scholz for it to be canceled. However, he received support from Ai Weiwei, the most famous contemporary Chinese artist. “It’s not a bad idea, at least,” he says. In today’s world it is inappropriate to sever relationships to achieve political goals. That never worked. “I don’t think his visit to Beijing is unacceptable,” Ai Weiwei said. It depends on what attitude Scholz takes.