angela merkel.jpg
Photograph: EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday called for greater democracy in China and underlined the need for a reliable legal framework for a stable society, in a speech at the start of her three-day visit.

The German leader, who arrived in Beijing for the fourth Sino-German joint cabinet meeting, also emphasized economic cooperation with Germany.

In a speech at a university in Beijing, where an honorary doctorate was conferred on her, Merkel said that no one was above the law. The law should not be used as a tool of power, she added, but must be applicable in the same way to everyone.

She also strongly emphasized the role and contributions of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which should not be hindered by a Chinese law set to go in effect in 2017 that forbids foreign NGOs from financing or engaging in "political activities."

In the conflict over Europe's refusal to classify China as a market economy, Merkel called for a compromise to avoid a looming trade conflict.

"No one is interested in trade wars," Merkel said. "This means also that we have to talk openly about existing problems."

The market economy status would protect China from expensive anti-dumping lawsuits and from complaints that it underprices its products.

The European Union must "talk about some industries" with China, Merkel said, referring to China's steel overproduction.

Last month, the EU launched an investigation into whether the Chinese government has been unfairly subsidizing flat-steel producers, in a move likely to further strain ties with Beijing.

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.

The 28-country EU is the second-largest steel producer in the world.

In a video on Saturday, Merkel addressed Chinese steel production, saying that "we have a very complicated situation at the moment with the steel market." The German industry is seeking additional protections from dumping and for China to reduce excess capacities.

Merkel is travelling with six ministers and five permanent secretaries who are scheduled to meet with counterparts in the Chinese government on Monday.

She was given the honorary doctorate for her involvement in the resolution of regional conflicts, the fight against climate change and in tackling the 2008 financial crisis, the university said.

Meanwhile, the relatives of Chinese journalist Gao Yu asked Merkel to raise her case with Beijing. Gao, 71, has requested permission to travel to Germany, which has offered to provide assistance, for medical treatment for heart trouble.

China has denied allowing her out of the country, where she has no pension or other long-term support.

Gao, who worked for Germany's Deutsche Welle radio among other outlets, was found guilty in April 2015 of passing documents to people outside the country.

On Saturday, Amnesty International said Merkel should call on Beijing to urgently stop its crackdown on rights lawyers and activists and release several who have been detained since last summer.

"We also call on the Chinese authorities to stop criminal persecution of individuals and groups, including Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians and other ethnic minorities, for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, religion and belief," Amnesty International China researcher William Nee said.

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