On Tuesday, students in Shanghai got to hear a different take on communism from German President Joachim Gauck than the typical version they get from top Beijing officials and state media.
In his address at Tongji University Gauck condemned Communist rule of East Germany, while also praising the principles of universal human rights and personal freedom. Though he avoided drawing direct connections between Germany and China, Gauck did describe himself as an individual “from a country that has faced some of the same problems that China has to confront.”
Born in 1940, Gauck grew up in East Germany and came to prominence as an anti-communist civil rights activist. He has served as Germany’s president, a mostly symbolic position, since 2012. According to an official English translation of the speech, here’s how he described East Germany under Communist rule:
Most people were neither happy nor liberated, and the entire system lacked proper legitimacy.
Free, equal and secret public elections were not held. The result was a lack of credibility, which went hand in hand with a culture of distrust between the rulers and those they ruled.
It was a state that, as part of the union of Communist countries dependent on the Soviet Union, silenced its own people, locked them up and humiliated those who refused to comply with the will of the leaders.
Gauck also made time in his speech for the important year of 1989. He said that when the Berlin Wall fell it became “clear that the human yearning for freedom cannot be kept down.” He talked about the benefits of an “vibrant and active civil society,” as well as a university environment that is open to “free and frank discussion.” He also dismissed the notion of human rights as a “Western product.”
The issue of human rights in China has once again become a controversial one, thanks to a recent crackdown on journalists, activists and booksellers that has prompted an international outcry, particularly inside the United Nations. Beijing has struck back at its attackers, while also defending itself by saying it is pursuing a human rights path “with Chinese characteristics.”
Instead of communism and human rights, state media reports on the speech focused instead on the German President’s praise for the Chinese economy and his desire to promote stronger trade relations between their two countries:
According to Gauck, Germany and China have much in common. Both are populous countries with a large economy and have proved to be the anchor for stability in their respective region in times of economic difficulties.
“Germany is eager to see a stable and prosperous China,” Gauck said.
He said Germany has always welcomed China’s peaceful rise, its principle of peaceful co-existence with other countries and a greater role of it in the international arena.
China’s Foreign Ministry was asked about Gauck’s outspoken comments on human rights and civil society at a regular Q&A session yesterday. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said she hadn’t seen reports of his speech yet, but noted that while the two countries have different social systems, bilateral relations can still move forward based on mutual respect and trust.
While only a day before, the Global Times said that human rights would only play a trivial role in the German President’s visit. Gauck told reporters yesterday that during his meetings with top officials in Beijing, he raised the issue of veteran Chinese journalist and former Deutsche Welle reporter Gao Yu, who was convicted of leaking state secrets in 2015, but was released later in the year due to her failing health. Since her release, she has been seeking to go to Germany for medical treatment, but her travel requests have thus far been denied.