Unharmonious Days at the Voice of Germany’s Chinese Service

Chinese dissidents living in Germany wrote an open letter to Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag, on September 13. They complained about Germany’s international radio station Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) and its China coverage.

From Germany with Love

Net Nanny: From Germany with Love

Their criticism targeted the station’s Chinese service and its then deputy department manager Zhang Danhong. Signed by a number of people from organizations that I haven’t heard of before, plus Zheng Donghong of the Epoch Times (a paper I obviously have heard of before), the letter said that the Chinese editorial staff was to a large extent isolated from German society and was functioning like an island. The open letter refers to the overall concept of the station that wants to promote democracy and human rights.

A substantial share of the German press and at least one leading member of parliament were supportive of the open letter, and the management apparently took the allegations against Zhang Danhong serious enough to suspend her from work initially. She was confirmed as a member of the editorial department within the same month but lost her position as its deputy department manager.

From what I have heard and read from Zhang, she is what the Chinese Communist Party might call a friend of the Chinese people. That said, I can see nothing that would violate our constitution – and if or how she supported democracy and human rights with her work isn’t easy to decide. I see nothing that would really speak against her for that matter.

But I’m no great fan of my country’s international radio station anyway. I feel that there is too much emphasis on praising Germany’s industry, it’s R&D, and its universities. I’m a regular listener to the BBC, to All India Radio, and to several East Asian stations. As far as I can think back, the last time I heard something on the Welle that involved China and that I found really interesting was an interview with Lee Teng-hui, then Taiwan’s president. In that interview, he defined Taiwan’s relations with China as state-to-state relations. With programs as boring as many of the station are now, changes in its programs – not necessarily its staff – would seem to make sense to me. I would also prefer a much more aggressive way in promoting democracy and human rights by the station – but that is part of my personal wish list, and not a question of how much the station is in line with its public mandate.

The CCP isn’t necessarily in love with the Chinese programs. Frank Sieren, Die Zeit correspondent in China, pointed out that the Deutsche Welle’s website is or was regularly blocked in China. But then, there is a lot of stuff that is blocked by the paranoid Great Firewall. Zhou Derong, formerly the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung‘s cultural correspondent living in Shanghai, even suggested that if criticism of the Chinese service was justified, the CCP had no reason to censor the Deutsche Welle’s webpages. Zhou apparently believes that the paranoid Great Firewall makes rational choices.

There is another factor in this discussion, and that is the Chinese leadership itself. This is how Xinhuanet reacted to Zhang Danhong’s suspension:

Before this incident1), multiple pro-China articles were dismissed, proving that Germany’s freedom of expression was merely a joke. What is more worrying is that anti-China sentiment may be hiding in the shadow of Nazi racism.

Nothing that Xinhua writes can be considered a slip of the tongue. Huanqiu Net offered even more scientific insights:

Recent years have seen a resurgence of Nazi Skinheads in some places in Germany. Attacks on foreigners occur from time to time. The unhealthy trend of racism is also the background to a series of anti-China moves of some German media.

The logical problem within this argumentation: the brawl about Zhang Danhong wasn’t about race. Many of those who complained about her work were actually Chinese people.

The way they criticized Zhang Danhong may be questionable, and the way the radio station reacted was quite probably wrong. Still, Zhang Danhong can take her case to the courts. And the way Xinhua criticises Germany tells more about China’s leadership than about my country. On the one hand, Xinhua’s and Huanqiu’s criticism shows a remarkable disdain for the victims of the Nazis. And on the other hand, it equates rejections of China’s political system with racism. That kind of logic may apply under the CCP’s jurisdiction. But Beijing can’t realistically expect people outside China to adopt the same view.



December 20, 2010
1) the link used to be http://en.chinaelections.org/NewsInfo.asp?NewsID=19207 but is no longer valid.

February 6, 2012
2) Now here: http://chinaelectionsblog.net/?p=13092

22 Responses to “Unharmonious Days at the Voice of Germany’s Chinese Service”

  1. It’s a very interesting case. Thanks for that.

    I have to admit I haven’t been following this incident. So what I’m saying here may not be at all relevant.

    But it seems to me that the open letters (there are actually two of them) to your government were signed by a very large group of Chinese and non-Chinese people from all around the world. Many of these signatories are very famous internationally. They don’t seem to be to be FLG members, as some of their critics in Germany have suggested. That explains why your parliament is taking their protest against Zhang Danhong so seriously.

    You can find a record of both letters, as well as the names of those who signed them at Woeser’s site. Check it out:



  2. Thanks for the link. I didn’t follow the case either at the time, when it started more than two months ago. What really strikes me now is how unprepared the radio station seems to have been for a controversy like this one. I’m sure there had been complaints for a long time, but as long as the China hype went, they had no chance to get heard.

    There has been a series of cuts into the station’s budget in the past ten years or so, there are less programs – in German language – than before (they used to repeat themselves every eight hours or so, and now it is only a four- or two-hours program that is being repeated during the day. Radio Austria International and Swiss Radio International were closed down completely or almost completely, and the way the Deutsche Welle works sometimes seems to suggest that they have to justify their remaining budget by promoting Germany and make us look nice to audiences abroad – to a mainland Chinese audience, too. But if that’s the case, it isn’t what makes a country any greater, and it does actually make the value of its international broadcaster smaller. It certainly isn’t what made the BBC World Service what it still is today.

    One of the most interesting comments on the matter came from Günter Nooke, the federal government’s human rights commissioner and member of the Deutsche Welle board of directors. “You can’t be proud of your distance to your own state on the one hand, and slip into the proximity of other governments on the other.”

    A number of German authors also wrote a critical letter – however, it is confusion about who of them really signed it. One of them, Lutz Rathenow, was apparently surprised to hear that he had criticized the Chinese service. The biggest problem that I see is a high degree of opportunism. It shouldn’t have been chique to hype China in the past – and it shouldn’t be chique to blanketly condemn its political system now. It should be a question of values and convictions. That could have spared the Deutsche Welle some of the chaos it has probably gone through during the past weeks.

    I hope the chaos will help to find a straighter and more convincing way of programming.



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