Germany’s President Joachim Guack is warping up a five-day visit to China, which has been highlighted by an unlikely emphasis on human rights.
Most foreign leaders visiting China tend to overlook the communist regime’s human rights record, while focusing on trade and economic policy. Guack, more of a symbolic head-of-state, took a different approach.
In a speech he delivered at Tongji University in Shanghai on Wednesday, Guack denounced repressive regimes and demanded that civil society be allowed to flourish. By alluding to the injustice his people faced under fascism and later East German Communism, Guack made chilling comparisons to what Chinese citizens face in the 21st Century.
Speaking before students and professors, Guack said he came from a country “that has faced some of the same problems that China has to confront.”
He reflected on the time he spent as a civil society activist opposing communism in East Germany.
Guack said the communist regime “silenced its own people, locked them up and humiliated those who refused to comply with the will of the leaders.”
He added, “the entire system lacked proper legitimacy … The result was a lack of credibility, which went hand in hand with a culture of distrust between the rulers and those they ruled.”
Guack also criticized regimes that believe they are above the scrutiny of the international community, a position China often puts itself in.
“For a long time, Germany claimed special cultural status — a sort of exceptionalism — according to which what was right for everyone needn’t necessarily apply to Germany. Ultimately, it took the cataclysm of Nazism.”
Two days before his speech, Guack met with beleaguered human rights lawyers. Since last summer, more than 200 human rights lawyers and legal workers have been detained. 12 are still custody. Activists and journalists have also been arrested.
Guack met with lawyers representing Gao Yu, a former writer for German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle. She was charged with leaking state secrets.
The day before his Tongji speech, the nationalist newspaper Global Times published an editorial titled “Human rights not priority for Guack visit.”
It’s not clear whether Guack prioritized human rights while speaking with Chinese leaders, but many dissidents appreciate his public tone on the matter.
“It will, per se, have a deep and far-reaching influence on China’s dissident intellectual community and on the people,” wrote former political prisoner Liao Yiwu to the New York Times.