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How a Racial Slur Has Made the Nasty Spat Between China and Europe Even Worse

"Next time, Günther, we'll send you to sit in the ante-rooms of Beijing…"TOBIAS SCHWARZ AFP/Getty Images

Rule No. 1 for trading with China is: avoid racial slurs.

Rule No. 2 is follow Rule No. 1, especially when you have a high-ranking government visit going on.

No one seems to have told that to Günther Oettinger, Germany’s top official at the EU Commission and a key party ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel. China’s Foreign Ministry is seething at comments the Commissioner made in a non-public speech last week that found their way onto the Internet. Oettinger referred to Chinese people as “slanty-eyed” and mocked the perceived uniformity of the country’s officials.

To widespread guffaws from an audience of business men and women in Hamburg, the 63-year-old Christian Democrat railed about “nine men, one party, no democracy, no female quotas—and so, consequently, no women—all in the same dark blue, single-breasted suit, all of them with hair combed from left to right and creamed with black shoe polish.” (He added a barb at Germany’s liberal drift later, jokingly warning that a future Berlin government will introduce “mandatory gay marriage.”)

Having taken a few days to decide how best to respond, China’s Foreign Ministry finally let rip Tuesday, with a spokeswoman accusing Oettinger of a “baffling feeling of superiority” that is common among many Western politicians.

“We hope that they will learn to observe themselves and others objectively, and to respect others and treat them as equals,” the spokeswoman continued.

Oettinger, who has ridden out many other gaffe-related scandals, is unrepentant. He told the newspaper Die Welt over the weekend that: “It was a careless expression which was in no way meant disrespectfully towards China.” He’s been backed up by the European Commission which has also refused to apologize on his behalf, or even to investigate the incident, according to the Euractiv website. A Euractiv reporter collared him briefly outside the Commission HQ in Brussels Tuesday and summarized their conversation thus:

Oettinger’s comments come at a sensitive time for EU-China relations: the EU is still refusing to acknowledge China’s status as a”‘market economy,” something that would make it harder for the EU to take protective trade measures against it under World Trade Organization Rules. At the same time, European politicians are upset at the way China Inc. is buying up European companies while refusing to allow equivalent access to its market in many sectors.

Midea, an ostensibly private Chinese business, bought Kuka AG, a German maker of industrial robots, in July, sparking a month of intense soul-searching in Berlin. But things really heated up last week when Merkel’s government blocked the planned takeover of Aixtron AG, which makes equipment for semiconductor companies, at the urging of U.S. intelligence agencies on security grounds. China accused Berlin of “delusional ‘Yellow Peril’ paranoia” in response.

All of which meant that German vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel’s official visit to China this week was likely to be a bumpy one. And so it has proved. A joint appearance at a conference with Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng was cancelled Tuesday, according to the magazine Der Spiegel, while Gabriel was also stood up on short notice by Liu He, officially vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, and a key advisor to President Xi Jinping, who’s seen by some as the second-most influential person in the country, ahead even of Premier Li Keqiang.