By Nectar Gan and Benjamin Brown, CNN
(CNN) — China has lashed out at Germany after its foreign minister called Xi Jinping a “dictator” and summoned Berlin’s ambassador for a dressing down, in the latest flaring of tensions with a western democratic power over how the Chinese leader is described overseas.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock made the remarks in an interview with Fox News during a visit to the United States last week.
When asked about Russia’s war on Ukraine, she said: “If Putin were to win this war, what sign would that be for other dictators in the world, like Xi, like the Chinese president?”
The Chinese government on Sunday summoned Germany’s ambassador to China, Patricia Flor, to protest Baerbock’s comments, a German foreign ministry spokesperson told CNN Monday.
China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing was “strongly dissatisfied” with Baerbock’s comments and “firmly opposes” them.
“The remarks made by Germany are extremely absurd, seriously infringe on China’s political dignity, and are an open political provocation,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a regular news briefing on Monday.
The question about Baerbock’s remarks and Mao’s response are both missing from the briefing’s official transcript posted later on the ministry’s website.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry often leaves out content it deems sensitive from the transcripts of its regular briefings.
It is not the first time China has shown sensitivity towards how foreign leaders refer to Xi – China’s most assertive leader in a generation who has heavily centralized power and is nearly a year into his norm-busting third five-year term.
In June, US President Joe Biden also referred to Xi as a “dictator,” sparking a fierce backlash from Beijing.
At the time, China’s Foreign Ministry bristled at Biden’s comments, saying they “seriously contradict basic facts and seriously violate diplomatic etiquette.”
In 2000, Xi’s predecessor Jiang Zemin famously objected to be called a “dictator” in a spirited exchange with American journalist Mike Wallace on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
“You mean I’m a dictatorship?” an apparently surprised Jiang replied in English, while breaking into a laugh and calling the description “a big mistake.”
“Very frankly speaking, I don’t agree with your point I’m a dictator,” he said. “Your way of describing what things are like in China is as absurd as what the Arabian Nights may sound like.”
Jiang, who died aged 96 last year, is remembered by many Chinese as a symbol for a bygone era when China was perceived to be freer and less ideologically driven under a system known as “collective leadership”.
That referred to a power-sharing arrangement among political elites introduced by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to restore stability in the aftermath of Chairman Mao Zedong’s turbulent dictatorship.
Since coming to power a decade ago, however, Xi has dismantled that model and moved back towards something much more closely resembling one-man rule.
Berlin has a complicated and delicate relationship with China, its largest trading partner, something that has sparked debate and soul-searching within Germany, particularly in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow’s war exposed how reliant Germany had become on Russian gas and critics of Germany’s foreign policy cited similar vulnerabilities in its relationship with China.
Relations were strained by Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its growing partnership with Moscow and its military posturing toward Taiwan and in the South China Sea – choices that have sparked alarm and a hardening of attitudes across European capitals towards China.
Germany has tried to reset relations with Beijing while also trying to reduce its economic dependency on China.
In a long-awaited strategy paper published in July, it labeled China as “a partner, competitor and systemic rival” and announced it would reduce its dependence on China in “critical sectors” including medicine, lithium batteries used in electric cars and elements essential to chipmaking.
“China has changed. As a result of this and China’s political decisions, we need to change our approach to China,” the paper said.
Germany’s current government is made up of a centre-left coalition of parties that led to Angela Merkel stepping down in late 2021 after 16 years at the helm of Europe’s largest economy.
Foreign minister Baerbock hails from Germany’s Greens party and has pushed for a tougher stance on China, especially on the issues of human rights and Taiwan – a self-governing democracy that Beijing claims as its own.
In August, she told an Australian think-tank that China posed a challenge to the “fundamentals of how we live together in this world.”
Her address drew a searing commentary from China’s state-run Global Times, which accused her of “smearing China” and holding “deep-rooted prejudice” against the country.
During a visit to Beijing in April, Baerbock warned that any attempt by China to control Taiwan would be unacceptable. She also said Beijing was increasingly becoming a systemic rival more than a trade partner and competitor.
Earlier, she described aspects of a trip to China as “more than shocking” and said Beijing was increasingly becoming more of a systemic rival than a trade partner.
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