Money comes first, and then morality and human rights? The ZDF documentary “We Germans and China” describes a difficult relationship over the centuries. Evil is not always easy to locate.

When it comes to beer, the world is very simple. Let’s look at Qingdao, China, 12,000 kilometers away from Berlin. Here was the German model colony of the colonial era. The Germania brewery of yesteryear is still present today. “Everyone in China drinks Tsingtao beer,” assures a journalist when she talks about what is now the largest brewery in the huge country – which has preserved the historic boiler room with the German inscriptions to this day. At the opening of the Chinese beer festival, people dressed in dirndls danced with plastic beer mugs. This first fusion of Chinese and Western culture has become a success story.

The beery simplicity is deceptive. The ZDF documentary “We Germans and China” shows how multifaceted and complex the connection between Germany and China is. In the beginning, the German Reich was terrifying.

present and future of our world

In his speech on the deployment of German soldiers, which went down in history as the “Hun Speech”, Kaiser Wilhelm II demanded: Germany’s name should become so well known “that no Chinese dare ever again to even look askance at a German”. The so-called Schutztruppe marched and murdered in order to manifest the German reputation. Today we are the good guys in Germany – and look with suspicion at a China that, with human rights violations and declarations of friendship with Putin, provides sufficient reasons to be looked at askance.

The colonial past is unforgettable. As assured China’s President on the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party: “We will never again allow ourselves to be subjugated by foreign powers. Anyone attempting this will see bloodshed on a great wall of steel.”

So fears on both sides, and in abundance. But also recognition that seems strange from today’s perspective. Let’s take NSDAP member John Rabe (“The Good Nazi”, New York Times). When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, he saved 200,000 Chinese from their attacks. And is celebrated to this day. “In China, we honor John Rabe,” said President Xi Jinping.

The history provides similarities in their dates. In 1949 Mao proclaimed the communist People’s Republic. The Federal Republic of Germany was also founded in 1949. Bonn only recognized China in 1973. In 1975, Helmut Schmidt, the first Federal Chancellor, traveled to Beijing and shook hands with Mao – a dictator “who at that time had an estimated 70 million people on his conscience”, as the sinologist Kai Vogelsang judged in the ZDF documentary, “and congratulated him to his successful policy”.

Business comes first, morality much later. The renunciation of the social democrat, who has not a word to say about human rights in China, is paying off. Trade benefits. In 1983 the first VW plant was built in China. Today the group is the largest automaker in China. Chancellors Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder expand cooperation and knowledge transfer “so that both peoples benefit”. “Change through trade was a reassuring illusion,” comments Prof. Vogelsang, “that doesn’t work in a party state like China.”

China is Germany’s most important trading partner. Since Putin’s attack on Ukraine, we’ve seen how quickly the money earned stinks to high heaven. Not every politician still likes to see the pictures in which he shakes hands and smiles at the cameras next to the aggressor. Not everyone likes to be reminded of his hugs to the Chinese rulers either. And will wish for even more distance than the 12,000 kilometers from Quingdao to Berlin. Smiling kindness can hurt. History is cruel there.