At the height of the corona epidemic in April, the Saarland was in despair: Where should you get five million protective masks from? A mask requirement was announced, every Saarlander should receive five copies free of charge, but they were nowhere to be obtained. How good that there was a man who otherwise largely disappeared from the radar in Germany: the former SPD chairman and defense minister Rudolf Scharping. The 72-year-old used his “good wires”, as the Saarlandwelle proudly reported, to China. Scharping has been turning the big wheel there for some time – the mask protection campaign rolled out successfully.
Scharping is now known in China as “lao pengyou” – an old friend. The Chinese give his consulting firm RSBK business, while Scharping gives them political influence in return. For example, when it comes to the favorite project of the Chinese head of state and party leader Xi Jinping: the construction of a “new silk road” between China and Western Europe.
Scharping’s lobbying work is only a small part of China’s great effort to expand political influence in Germany. Since the conflict with the United States came to a head, Germany has been a key country in attracting Europeans to China’s side. “The Chinese leadership is mobilizing its entire network in Germany to a degree that we have never seen before,” one hears concerned from Berlin security circles.
120 Chinese diplomats work in Germany, more than in any other country. For comparison: There are currently 35 posts for Japan in this country. There are also hundreds of representatives from official liaison offices between the provinces and federal states and contact points from state associations.
Scharping drums for China
The embassy also monitors its 150,000 local citizens, organizes them in various associations (“Young Chinese Entrepreneurs”, “Chinese Student Association”) and encourages them to “act patriotically”. Reporters Without Borders reported that Beijing is training thousands of foreign students to spread Chinese propaganda in their host countries.
Many diplomats dealt with what has been known as “people’s diplomacy” and “united front work” since Mao’s time. State propaganda offices, open and covert pro-Beijing organizations and various associations of “old friends of China” are grouped around the embassy on the Märkischer Ufer in Berlin. China’s leadership is spreading its worldview with traditional means such as invitations to the country, but also the most modern online campaign technology.
In October 2019, for example, three prominent SPD politicians gathered at the Frankfurt Hotel Marriott at the invitation of Scharping with a delegation of Chinese officials who had traveled especially: State Minister Niels Annen from the Foreign Office, Finance State Secretary Jörg Kukies and the jack-of-all-trades Sigmar Gabriel. The public, however, was not welcome: Personal-Financial.com’s request to attend the conference was rejected.
Scharping prefers to publicly praise the leadership in Beijing at SPD events or in interviews with Chinese state media. The “new Silk Road” is a “great opportunity”, the Middle Kingdom “not a threat” – and there is also no evidence that China is “sucking out” German investors. Even the Federation of German Industries takes a more differentiated view today.
The advantage of the friends of China for the Chinese side often only becomes apparent on closer inspection. Scharping has been drumming for years for a partnership between the city of Xuchang (over four million inhabitants) and the Lahn-Dill district (just 253,000). Why? The constituency of Lahn-Dill is represented by SPD MP Dagmar Schmidt in the Bundestag, who also chairs the Sino-German parliamentary group. She already finds many words of praise for China, but unlike Scharping, she doesn’t spare criticism either. For the embassy in Berlin it would be an advantage if Schmidt could be integrated into the old friends network. Any contact with her can help from a Chinese point of view.
China operates eight German-language websites
In addition to personal contacts, the Chinese also like to use other channels. When protests flared up in Hong Kong last year, the number of Twitter accounts spreading Chinese propaganda skyrocketed. Twitter discovered and blocked 900 such accounts by August 2019 alone. In total, there were several networks with a total of 200,000 accounts, it said. And this pattern was repeated in the Corona crisis this spring: When the first aid deliveries from China arrived in northern Italy, hashtags like #forzaCinaeItalia (“Forward Italy and China”) appeared on Twitter shortly afterwards. Between March 11 and 23, thousands of users allegedly spontaneously celebrated the Italian-Chinese solidarity. It wasn’t until the end of March that experts discovered that a good half of the tweets came from artificial bots. China forbids its own citizens to access Facebook and Twitter.
The People’s Republic of Germany officially operates eight German-language websites. Four consulates general, an office of the state news agency Xinhua and a cultural center bring the CP’s perspective to the people. It finances 19 Confucius Institutes, which are supposed to officially promote the Chinese language and culture, but also influence the curricula of German universities. Numerous local associations of the Society for German-Chinese Friendship (GDCF), which were once founded by the Maoist K groups, have existed since the 1970s. Economy and industry deal with the Chinese propaganda with a regular insert in the “Handelsblatt” and articles by Ambassador Wu Ken in business media. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce is eagerly seeking contact with German corporations. At its head is the managing director of the steel giant Baosteel, Rao Yuyong, who has recently been named as an interested party in the steel division of Thyssenkrupp.