Credits: Alexia Barakou

BY NICO SCHMIDT

21 November 2019

China uses its economic power to have foreign critics across Europe obey to its political world view. Recent events in Germany shed a light on how the Chinese Government silences critics of its policy of oppression.

It was an unusual visit that Christian Democratic Union (CDU) politician and Member of Parliament Michael Brand received in his Berlin office in the spring of 2016. A Chinese embassy delegation had announced its arrival. But instead of friendliness, the guests quickly got to the point. “They accused me of malicious falsehoods,” recalls Brand, who then chaired the Human Rights Committee of the Bundestag. “This culminated in the fact that they asked me to change pictures and text on my homepage.”

Brand has been advocating for the people of Tibet for years. Photos on his website show him with a Tibetan flag. In articles he wrote about the “massive destruction of Tibetan religious shrines and the brutal suppression of this unique culture”. This did not suit the Chinese government. Neither did the fact that Brand did not follow their request. A few days later he was invited to the Chinese embassy for a conversation. There, Brand says, the ambassador renewed the demand in a one-on-one interview. Brand refused. Shortly afterwards, the Chinese government declared him persona non grata and prohibited the German Human Rights Committee from making a planned trip to China as long as Brand was present.

In recent months, Investigate Europe has researched how a Chinese investment offensive is changing Europe: China is building railway lines and motorways, buying ports and power grids, companies in all sectors and industries. China has invested more than 300 billion euros in Europe since 2009.

Contrary to widespread fears, China’s economic expansion has mainly brought growth and jobs to companies from Norway to Greece. Even among employees, investors are often welcome, and there is little evidence of economic damage. But it also became apparent that the Chinese government is increasingly using its economic power to try to silence European entrepreneurs and politicians like Michael Brand. China is also trying to control members of China’s ethnic minorities living in Germany, the Netherlands and Finland. In the middle of Europe, China’s government intimidates exiled Chinese and dissidents, spies on them and tries to criminalise them.

Almost 8,000 kilometres from Beijing, in the middle of Munich’s city centre, works a man whom hardly anyone in Germany knows, but who is one of the biggest enemies of the state for the Chinese government. Dolkun Isa sits in a small office – without a view. Human rights reports pile up on his desk, awards hang on the wall. Isa fled China in the mid-1990s and is now a German citizen. He heads the World Congress of the Uighurs, the umbrella organisation of the Muslim minority that has been oppressed in the west Chinese province of Xinjiang for decades. According to human rights organisations, at least one million people in Xinjiang are currently in prisons called – by the Chinese government itself -“re-education camps”. “Since 2017, the government has been brutally cracking down on the Uighurs in Xinjiang,” says Isa.

The rulers in Beijing put Isa and his organisation on a terror list. With the help of Interpol, they called on other states to inform them of Isa’s location and, if possible, arrest him. With success: Isa was arrested last year in Rome on the way to an event in the Italian Senate and was treated by the Recognition Service before he was released again. Does an international terrorist live and work in the middle of Munich? Hardly. According to the Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution, there are no indications of terrorist activities by the Munich Uighurs. The Federal Government finally convinced Interpol to delete the search entry for Isa from the system. China protested.

Munich is home to the largest Uighur community in Europe. About 800 Uighurs live in exile along the Isar. They have recently had new neighbours. The Chinese government had a new Consulate General built on almost 22,000 square meters, with office and residential buildings, green areas and a basketball court. According to security circles, China would control its intelligence activities in Western Europe from here.

Several thousand Uighurs live in Europe. Some of them came as students and stayed, others fled their homes. In recent months Investigate Europe has been able to talk to Uighurs in several European countries. They are very cautious, almost all of them have relatives living in Xinjiang. And since the Chinese state increased surveillance and repression there in 2017, contacts with the homeland have almost completely broken off.

Several Munich Uighurs report that their demonstrations are regularly filmed by Chinese agents. What the pictures are used for is unclear. From time to time, however, some of the exiles have to go to the Chinese embassy to request documents. For example, when they want to accept German citizenship. In several cases, Uighurs were then confronted with images of the demonstrations. In addition, at least one case is known in Munich in which the Chinese allegedly tried to recruit Uighurs as spies. Isa assumes that there were further attempts.

When it comes to the situation of the Uighurs, Europe is at odds. In July, several EU states wrote a letter to the President of the UN Human Rights Council. They called on China to respect the human rights of minorities in the country and to end the arbitrary detention of Uighurs. Initially, only 15 EU states took part. Notable for their absence were states that are part of China’s billion-euro infrastructure project of the “New Silk Road” – Bulgaria, Greece, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

For the Chinese government, simply talking about the situation of the Uighurs is an affront. In the autumn of 2018, the Bundestag felt the effects; hours before a plenary debate on the situation of the Uighurs, the Chinese ambassador tried to intervene. After the meeting, all speakers received mail from the embassy. In a four-page letter, the embassy accused the Bundestag of interfering in China’s internal affairs and threatened that there would be consequences. According to the Bundestag, such an approach is unique.

Anyone who is dependent on China can be blackmailed, German companies know this all too well. The more companies that are dependent on the huge Chinese market, the more likely they are to avoid every critical word. For example Daimler, in February 2018: A marketing employee had adorned a Mercedes advertisement on Instagram with a quote from the Dalai Lama: “Look at the situation from all sides and you will become more open”. Within hours there was a social media storm, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the party in China, called Daimler an “enemy of the people”. Immediately the board of directors backtracked and called the motto “an extremely wrong message”. Dieter Zetsche, then head of Daimler, said in a personal letter that he “deeply regretted the suffering and grief that the negligent and insensitive mistake brought to the Chinese people”.

In this he is ons on the wavelength of the official Chinese position: “Politics should remain politics and economics economy”, says Shi Wei, diplomat of the Chinese embassy to the EU, on request. “Regarding the Dalai Lama, there’s no doubt: Whether your name is Audi or Daimler or you run a small business, if you don’t have a good standpoint on this issue, everyone in China will comment on it. Europeans must understand that.”

Such experiences lead to self-censorship. When a BBC reporter asked VW boss Herbert Diess in April how he could run a factory in Xinjiang, even though China locked people up in camps there, Diess said without further ado, “I don’t know anything about that. Siemens boss Joe Kaeser went even further. After accompanying Chancellor Angela Merkel on a trip to China, Kaeser warned against criticising China’s leadership too harshly. That would endanger German jobs. Therefore, the company’s own “moral values and interests” should be “especially weighed” accordingly. China is one of Siemens’ most important sales markets. The company also earns money in Xinjiang. Recently, the company even agreed on strategic cooperation on automation and digitisation with the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, a state-owned military supplier that, among other things, has developed an app to monitor Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Michael Brand, the CDU deputy, is still a member of the Human Rights Committee. But he did not go to China anymore. Brand last said about Tibet: “The world must not forget”. In fact, this is exactly what is happening. The head of the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, has not been received by a leading politician in Europe for three years. While the Chinese unsuccessfully try to prevent debates like those in the Bundestag about the Uighurs or have critics of their country arrested, they have almost completely achieved their goal in the economy. And in the public perception, as far as Tibet is concerned, apparently, there too.

Read details of our investigation into China’s investment in Europe and find out more from our media partners: China Rescuer or Rival