China for Populists

The Maximilian Krah Drama

Hunter S. Thompson once famously noted, “When the going gets weird, the weird turns pro.”

Lonely and cold. Embassy of China, Berlin.

In the late journalist’s case, the weirdness was benign, such as cajoling marginal voters to make him a Colorado sheriff.

In the case of Alternative für Deutschland, weirdness has a more sinister cast.

Exhibit one: Last week, the Dresden prosecutor’s office revealed that a highly placed aide to AfD MEP Maximilian Krah allegedly engaged in espionage on behalf of China.

The fact that the aide is Chinese seems odd since the AfD party line excludes non-Europeans.

Exhibit two: Dresden launched a separate investigation, claiming that Krah accepted payments from the Chinese and Russian governments.

The prosecutor’s office is now trying to determine whether this constitutes bribery.

These developments have not prompted Krah, a leading figure in Alternative für Deutschland, to rescind his candidacy in June’s EU elections.

While the lawmaker has announced that he will not participate in an AfD campaign kickoff event in Baden-Württemberg, Krah has made it clear that he is in it for the long haul.

And who can blame him?

Perhaps the most profound truth (among many lies) to emerge from Donald Trump’s victorious presidential run in 2016 is that the old rules and standards of decency no longer apply.

Having told Billy Bush while on a hot mic of his love for grabbing women “by the pussy”, Trump gambled correctly that the vast majority of his supporters don’t care about such trivia.

This point is valid and needs to be acknowledged for its broader implications for politics in today’s spectacular media culture.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the shame of criminal behaviour or inappropriate social conduct could bring about the resignation of a public figure.

One recalls the case of Earl Butz, who was forced to resign as Secretary of Agriculture in a Republican administration for telling a spectacularly racist joke published in Rolling Stone.

This came only four years after Richard Nixon was compelled to resign (admittedly for something much more serious), and European conservatives have also had their fair share of slip-ups (the Profumo scandal, the Westland affair, etc).

Nowadays, resigning for reasons other than primary criminal culpability is mainly the province of liberals. While Bill Clinton was able to ride out the consequences of the Lewinsky scandal, Al Franken was not so lucky.

Though his conduct was worthy of censure, it seems paltry given that Donald Trump is facing more felony counts than a Mafia don.

Trump confirms that the rules of decency don’t apply to him. If only prudishness and the law didn’t stand in the way.

Krah is betting on his future with Trump in mind.

Exhibit three: Krah’s case is not the only turbulence currently afflicting Alternative für Deutschland.

It’s only a few days since a video surfaced of party luminary Petr Bystroň accepting a backhander from the Russia-linked Voice of Europe network in Prague.

This came about in the course of an investigation by Czech intelligence that led to the breakup of an alleged spy ring and the freezing of the assets of several of its leading figures.

This is not surprising given the war in Ukraine and Russian influence operations in NATO member states.

The resulting outcry from representatives of everyone from the CDU leftward was similarly unsurprising.

Forging connections with AfD would be a natural move for the Kremlin. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see them gravitating toward each other politically.

Vladimir Putin is the great white hope of Europe’s far right. Though he makes the pretence of supporting anti-colonial struggles abroad, it’s purely out of realpolitik.

When it comes to homeland defence, his priorities are defending Russia from the dangers posed by Muslims and Jews, and gays and snowflakes opposed to his kleptocracy.

There is a certain irony here that the homogeneity of ends might, in fact, suggest that the payments to Krah and Bystroň did not constitute bribery.

After all, it’s not like the Russians were paying either man to behave in a way they otherwise wouldn’t.

There’s a case to be made (and their lawyers are likely making it) that if there were payments, these were campaign contributions rather than influence peddling.

This still leaves some somewhat perplexing questions concerning Krah’s role as the Manchurian candidate.

Why was it that Krah, whose views on race and the sanctity of Germany’s leitkultur (“leading culture”) are entirely in sync step with AfD xenophobia, had a person of Chinese background on his staff?

Krah studied in China, according to a 2023 t-online report cited earlier this week by France 24, and has since visited the country and defended Beijing’s repression of Uighur Muslims.

The current German government has been highly critical of China’s human rights policies and blasted its detention of over a million Uighurs in reeducation camps.

Between his Beijing advocacy and the AfD’s Islamophobia, Krah’s consistency is obvious.

And, if it was, in fact, the case that his aide, Gian Guo, was a paid agent, what exactly was it that the Chinese were hoping to gain?

Knowing nothing of substance about the accused’s character at this point, one is probably still justified in assuming that the two questions are connected.

Beijing’s pursuit of greater influence in Asia and Africa is an open secret.

Human rights differences aside, it stands to reason China would want closer ties with Germany, whose leadership role in the European Union makes it an obvious partner.

There is an odd bet that underlies this particular play.

It would be difficult for the Chinese (as for the Russians) to curry favour with any of the other major German political parties.

China’s strong economic relations with Germany are certainly important. Much to the White House’s irritation, Beijing is Berlin’s biggest trading partner.

However, aligning with the fascist Alternative für Deutschland suggests something else.

At the very least, it reflects the influence of the party’s co-leader, Alice Weidel, and the six years she spent working for Goldman Sachs in China.

Weidel could very well rely on this history for international support in the event of an AfD win in the next federal election and to bring Germany into Moscow’s orbit.

Why wouldn’t her MEPs not be in similar sync and not extend that relationship to the EU institutions? It makes perfect sense, and it can’t be ruled out.

It will be some time before any such speculation can be replaced with facts.

While Russian attempts to influence European politics go back decades, Chinese attempts to influence the German far-right is a new and disturbing development.

Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz and Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbian Progressives, two illiberal parties Beijing has grown close to over the last decade, the AfD is not.

Alternative für Deutschland is an entirely different category of darkness.

Politics, it is said, make strange bedfellows. This is never truer than when one climbs into bed with those one has claimed to hate.

Photograph courtesy of Jochen Teufel. Published under a Creative Commons license.