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Is Germany the ‘Weakest Link’ in Western Democracy?

Let’s look at how Berlin is responding to the Hong Kong protests.
September 20, 2019
Is Germany the ‘Weakest Link’ in Western Democracy?
Prominent Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong is surrounded by media after he held a press conference at the Bundespressekonferenz, on September 11, 2019 in Berlin. - Joshua Wong had met Germany's Foreign minister the day before as he carried abroad his call to support the growing pro-democracy movement in the former British colony, a meeting slammed on by China as "disrespectful". (Photo by MICHELE TANTUSSI / AFP) (Photo credit should read MICHELE TANTUSSI/AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN—This week marked the 100th day of the Hong Kong protest movement, with lots of tear gas disseminated but no sign of tensions subsiding. While the demonstrations have drawn in attention to Hong Kong from the rest of the world, the People’s Republic of China has now engaged its international intelligence network outward to expand the conflict abroad. Any growth in the movement overseas to support Hong Kong’s campaign for democracy considerably complicates Beijing’s situation and they seem determined to shut it down.

Take Germany, for example. Last Friday, the Chinese-language service of Germany’s Deutsche Welle news agency reported that Chinese intelligence agents are “monitoring and intimidating dissidents and demonstrators in Germany, including those who support the Hong Kong democracy movement.” The assessment comes from official German government counterintelligence and law enforcement sources who state that PRC operatives in Germany “are playing a particularly significant role.”

Choosing Germany as the place for their expeditionary covert war against pro-Hong Kong democracy activists and others who oppose the PRC’s policies speaks volumes about how Xi Jinping assesses the Western alliance. Germany was selected as ground zero for Beijing’s secret police operatives because “this amounts to attacking what the Chinese see as one of democracy’s weakest links,” as one NATO intelligence analyst described it to me.

There are several reasons why Beijing’s spymasters and their Communist Party decided to make Germany a foreign battleground for suppressing dissent in Hong Kong and the PRC.

In the first place, Germany has shown a reluctance to confront the PRC on issues of democratic values and human rights in general. The country’s senior leadership has avoided the appearance of offering public support for Chinese dissidents, and official policy discussion has been muted.

As testimony to this fact, the information in the Deutsche Welle report was not from a government-issued assessment, white paper or press release provided in some unsolicited manner. Instead, it came only as a response to a query put forward by the Alliance 90/The Greens party that the government was then obligated to respond to whether it wanted to or not. 

This alliance is a minor presence in the Bundestag (67 out of 709 seats) but it is one of the few German political parties prepared to offer direct, public criticism of Beijing. In fact, one of the party’s senior lawmakers, Margarete Bause, has been banned from traveling to the PRC in retaliation for her support of Chinese dissidents dating back to her time in the Bavarian state parliament. 

Bause has long been a supporter of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei. Ai moved to Germany from China in 2015 due to increased harassment and arbitrary actions taken against him.

However, during the last week of August, Ai announced he would be relocating from Germany to the U.K., citing the changes in both German society and the orientation of the government on human rights issues. He accused continental Europe of reneging on its obligations to support democratic values and pretending not to know about Beijing’s numerous abuses in order to protect Germany’s commercial ties with the China market.

“Europe was a civilized, modern society which was supposed to uphold humanism, democracy, freedom and human rights,” he said speaking to the U.K. press when he announced his relocation plans. “Europe may no longer remain Europe beyond geography.” Ai stated that he settled in Germany initially because Berlin had worked so hard to help him gain his freedom, but that the changed climate in Germany made him feel like he was living in exile.

Ai isn’t the only Chinese dissident who’s not feeling the love from the German government. During the second week of September, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, a leader of the Hong Kong protest movement dating back to the 2014 “Umbrella Movement,” came to Berlin to urge German leaders and other Western nations to speak out in opposition to Beijing’s campaign against Hong Kong. The reception he was given by German officialdom was something less than enthusiastic.

Wong was unable to secure a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had just returned from a state visit to China. He was not invited for an audience with any of the German agencies responsible for relations with Beijing. He was afforded only a short encounter with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at a party given in Wong’s honour by the country’s popular newspaper, Bild.

Even that informal and unplanned exchange was enough to provoke a blistering denunciation during a press conference called by the Chinese embassy in Berlin the following day (from an embassy that almost never holds press briefings) that purposely excluded the accredited Bild correspondent from the event as “punishment” for organizing the party. The German ambassador in Beijing was also summoned to the PRC Foreign Ministry to receive a formal protest.

It’s not just diplomacy. China has numerous business interests with high-tech industries that it is keen to go to any lengths to protect. Not surprisingly, one of the main benefactors of these arrangements is the PRC’s military machine.

The Chinese navy operates about 16 Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines and is planning a full fleet of 20. These submarines are equipped with German-made diesel-powered marine engines, specifically the 396 SE84 series, that are designed and manufactured by MTU Friedrichshafen.

The engines can officially be sold for commercial applications, so their export to China is not prohibited by the arms embargo that the European Union maintains against Beijing. They are far quieter than any diesel propulsion design that the Chinese can produce and they give Beijing’s navy some of the hardest-to-detect diesel subs in the world.

Their sale is a lucrative arrangement that no one in Germany wants to see disrupted by a downturn in otherwise friendly relations, but the long-term danger to this kind of technology transfer is significant.

China has been building progressively better and quieter submarines since at least 2006. In October of that year, the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier was surprised when a Chinese submarine surfaced within five miles of its location without ever being detected on sonar. The sub was a Chinese-built Song-class vessel equipped with German-made engines. Had there been a war on, the Song-class sub could have sunk the carrier before anyone knew what was happening.

What also makes Germany an ideal place for Beijing to carry out undercover activities against anti-PRC activists is the legal system itself. One of the safeguards put in place after World II was that Germany would never again have a powerful, centralized police force with a national jurisdiction. The downside to that lack of centralization is that it complicates efforts to thwart the movements of PRC intelligence operatives.

Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the leader of the Green Party group, has stated it is now the German government itself that has admitted that demonstrators in Germany are often harassed by these PRC undercover agents. “Beijing’s long arm has reached into our country of the rule of law through its intelligence agencies, reached out to these demonstrators and posed a threat to them.”

Evidence to date is that the Greens and the pro-Hong Kong protestors that they are trying to protect are fighting an uphill battle. Germany’s commercial interests in China are too great. Also, none of the German intelligence and law enforcement agencies wants to start a series of diplomatic expulsions. 

Beijing’s spies and secret police goons who are tasked with trying to undermine the support for Hong Kong’s democracy movement in Germany have little to worry about. For these purposes the country seems destined to remain the weakest link in the Western democracy.

Reuben Johnson

Reuben F. Johnson is a defense technology analyst and correspondent for Breaking Defense and was based in Kyiv for two decades prior to the Russian invasion. He is currently based in Warsaw.