China's foreign ministry lashed out at the German ambassador on Wednesday after he said Beijing failed to respond to requests to discuss Chinese internet controls foreign companies worry will disrupt business.
Ambassador Michael Clauss told the South China Morning Post newspaper of Hong Kong the two governments agreed in 2016 to set up a group to discuss cyber issues but it "has yet to see the light of day." He said requests for a "meaningful dialogue" about Chinese curbs on virtual private networks, which are used for encrypted communication and can evade Beijing's web filters, have "regrettably not yet received a positive response."
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"The remarks by the relevant ambassador are not constructive, and some of them are even wrong," said a foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, at a regular briefing.
Hua said Germany had been invited to send delegations for consultation but was reluctant to do so.
"Instead, they accuse China of lacking sincerity for dialogue. It does not make sense," said Hua. "I hope the German Embassy and the people involved can refrain from unprofessional and irresponsible remarks and do something conducive to development of bilateral relationship and mutually beneficial cooperation."
It is almost unheard of for the Chinese foreign ministry to criticize a foreign diplomat, but Clauss is unusually forthright in talking publicly about import curbs, internet controls and other sensitive issues.
In June, Clauss called on communist authorities to release a detained bishop of the underground Roman Catholic church. He expressed concern about proposed changes in regulations on worship.
Chinese authorities have banned use of unlicensed VPNs as part of a sweeping crackdown on technology to evade controls aimed at preventing the public from seeing material deemed subversive or obscene.
China has the world's biggest population of internet users, with some 730 million people online. Estimates of the number of scientists, businesspeople, students and others who rely on VPNs for work and study run into the tens of millions.
Foreign companies use VPNs to communicate securely with their offices abroad and to see news and other websites that are blocked by Chinese web filters.
Companies already cite internet controls as among the biggest obstacles to doing business in China. Some have expressed concern being required to use only government-approved VPNs could weaken their security.
The VPN crackdown coincides with a Cybersecurity Law that took effect on June 1 and tightens control over data. It limits use of foreign security technology and requires companies to store information about Chinese citizens within this country.
Clauss's comments followed a warning this month by the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency that Chinese intelligence was engaged in a "broad-based attempt to infiltrate" its government. The official said Chinese agents used social networks to try to cultivate lawmakers and other officials as sources and targeted more than 10,000 Germans.
In the newspaper interview, Clauss said that issue could have been discussed by the German-Chinese cyber group but it has never met.