Beijing (dpa) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel met human rights lawyers, an artist, a writer and other civil society representatives in Beijing late Monday after holding government consultations focused on trade during her three-day visit to China.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert declined to comment on what was discussed at the meeting, which had been kept secret until the last minute.
In the past, the Chinese secret service had prevented regime critics from taking part in meetings with German government officials.
The German chancellor had earlier been welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing after consultations on trade worries over a glut of Chinese steel exports.
Xi welcomed Merkel for talks and a state dinner at the end of the second leg of her three-day visit to China, which will conclude on Tuesday with a trip to a BMW auto plant in the north-eastern city of Shenyang.
Her Sino-German government consultations with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang – the fourth during Merkel’s tenure – focused on an ongoing trade conflict over Europe’s refusal to classify China as a market economy.
“We remember our pledge,” Merkel said at a press conference Monday, referring to protocols where China would be considered for classification as a market economy 15 years after its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001.
The EU accuses China of exacerbating an overproduction crisis in the global steel market with unfairly cheap exports and subsidies that are allowing its manufacturers to grow despite the lack of demand.
Market economy status would relax some of the anti-dumping regulations currently applicable to China’s exports.
“China has fulfilled its obligations when it entered the WTO. Now it’s others’ turn to fulfil their obligations,” Li told reporters.
The official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary last week that the European Union’s refusal to fulfil its obligations this year could force China to resort to litigation, and “the worst scenario could be an all-out trade war between the two economies.”
Merkel also waded in on China’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Both delegations acknowledged that the disputes should be resolved peacefully. China has overlapping claims with neighbours including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The two delegations – which on the German side included Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – signed 24 agreements worth a total of 2.73 billion euros (3.1 billion dollars) on Monday.
The agreements included cooperation on disaster reduction, development aid, environmental protection, education, health, sustainable agriculture and new mobile networks, as well as in the rail, air and automotive industries.
Merkel’s visit comes amid an ongoing crackdown on the country’s human rights activists and lawyers.
China’s legislature in April passed a controversial law that places foreign non-governmental groups under the direct supervision of security authorities.
Since last summer, more than 300 rights lawyers and activists from across China have been detained, summoned by police or have disappeared, according to the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.
“It is always important that our companies and also our cooperation projects have a safe rule-based environment,” Merkel said at the opening of talks Monday morning.
“The dialogue on rule by law as well as the human rights dialogue are of great importance,” she said. “Many legal areas are affected, including for consumers and public institutions.”