German president slams communism during China visit

Former East German rights activist says people can never be happy in a dictatorship

German president Joachim Gauck has said people can never be happy under a “dictatorship” during his first trip to China. Photograph: Wolfgang Kumm/EPA

German president Joachim Gauck has said people can never be happy under a “dictatorship” during his first trip to China. Photograph: Wolfgang Kumm/EPA


German president Joachim Gauck, who was a civil rights activist in the former East Germany, has attacked communism during his first visit to China, telling students that people could never be happy under a “dictatorship”.

Heads of state traditionally steer clear of mentioning human rights in public during visits to China, which has been ruled by the Communist Party since the civil war in 1949, preferring to focus on trade issues instead.

Under the government of president Xi Jinping, there has been a crackdown on human rights activists, lawyers and press freedom.

However, in comments sure to have angered the Beijing government, the 76-year-old pastor praised civil rights and condemned totalitarian rule, which he said silenced dissenters by locking them up.

“Most people were neither happy nor liberated,” he told students at Shanghai’s Tongji University, speaking of East Germany during the Communist era, which ended after a popular revolt in 1989. “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,” he added.

Mr Gauck insisted that human rights were far more than a “Western product”, as they are often portrayed in Chinese public discourse.

“Even if the universal applicability of human rights does not yet mean that every person can de facto enjoy those rights... they can nonetheless lay claim to them,” he said.

In the run up to the five-day visit, the Global Times newspaper, which is part of the stable of titles that also includes the government mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, described human rights as a “trivial matter”.

“Gauck’s mission in this trip should be enhancing Sino-German relations, and it is unlikely he would throw a wet blanket on the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries,” it said.

“As a prerequisite to human rights dialogue, Western countries should respect China’s fundamental political system,” the Global Times said.

Germany has strong trade links with China, and Chinese state media focused on the business aspect, while president Xi focused on state cultural links, including a Germany-China youth exchange.

“I have held talks with president Gauck on consolidating and deepening Chinese-German comprehensive strategic partnership,” state broadcaster CCTV quoted president Xi as saying.

Earlier this week, Mr Gauck met a group of writers in the 798 art district and said he had raised the situation of Gao Yu, who was convicted last year of stealing state secrets. “Vibrant and active civil society always means an innovative and flexible society,” he said.