German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sit before the signing ceremony as they meet at the Great Hall Of The People in Beijing, China, on September 6 2019. Picture: REUTERS/ANDREA VERDELLI
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sit before the signing ceremony as they meet at the Great Hall Of The People in Beijing, China, on September 6 2019. Picture: REUTERS/ANDREA VERDELLI

Beijing — German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong “must be guaranteed” after meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing.

Hong Kong has been plunged into months of pro-democracy protests, and ahead of her three-day visit to China this week demonstrators in the semi-autonomous city appealed to the German chancellor to support them in her meetings with China's leadership.

Merkel said she had discussed the tension in the former British colony, and civil rights there, with her hosts and had “pointed out that these rights and freedoms must, of course, be guaranteed”.

“In the current situation everything must be done to avoid violence,” Merkel said at a joint press conference with Li, as seen in video footage published by German media.

“And the solutions can only be found in a political process — meaning through dialogue.”

Merkel arrived in China on Thursday with a large business delegation in tow.

The companies travelling with Merkel include Volkswagen, Allianz and Deutsche Bank, according to the German daily Bild, which carried a headline on Friday that read: “Do our companies not care about Hong Kong's freedom?”

‘Diplomatic farce’

Press access to her visit was unusually tight, with a number of members of the Beijing foreign press corps, including AFP, unable to get accreditation for the event.

Chinese officials blamed a lack of space due to a large contingent of journalists accompanying Merkel.

In a statement, the German Federation of Journalists criticised the limited access as a “diplomatic farce”.

“What image do the organisers have of the travelling German press? Did they think that the chancellor of Germany is coming with her courtiers, who politely listen, ask no questions and report meekly?” it said.

Merkel also met Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday evening, according to state news agency Xinhua, and the two leaders were scheduled to have dinner together.

The German leader is also due to give a speech to university students in the central city of Wuhan on Saturday.

Ahead of her trip, prominent Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong and others had recalled in an open letter published by Bild on Wednesday that Merkel grew up in the communist police state of East Germany.

“You have first-hand experience of the terrors of a dictatorial government,” the letter read.

“We hope that you will express your concern about our catastrophic situation and that you will convey our demands to the Chinese government during your stay in China.”

Business ties

Hong Kong has endured dozens of sometimes violent pro-democracy protests triggered by opposition to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China.

In their open letter, the protesters also warned that “Germany should be on its guard before doing business with China, as China does not comply with international law and has repeatedly broken its promises”.

A number of Chinese dissidents have been given refuge in Germany, including artist Ai Weiwei.

In May, two former Hong Kong independence activists were granted refugee status in Germany in what is one of the first cases of dissenters from the semi-autonomous Chinese city receiving such protection.

On a visit to China in 2018, Merkel met the wife of a Chinese human rights lawyer charged with state subversion, an extremely rare meeting between a dissident and a visiting head of state.

The trip marks her 12th visit to China as chancellor.

Xinhua said in a commentary on Friday that Merkel’s visit came as “productive co-operation between the world’s two major economies is much needed against the backdrop of global uncertainties”.

The agency said China accounted for the largest share of imports into Germany in 2018 with goods worth €106.2bn.

AFP