BERLIN - China's Premier Li Keqiang will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, the third top-level talks this year between the export powers, amid growing disquiet over human rights and business rules.
Berlin and Beijing say they are seeking to bolster their already massive trade and investment links by deepening their governments' strategic partnership at a third joint cabinet meeting and in bilateral business talks.
Merkel will roll out the red carpet and receive Li with full military honours for the visit, during which some 30 cooperation and investment deals worth over two billion euros ($2.5 billion) are expected to be signed in fields including health, education and the environment.
Twelve ministers from Germany and 14 from China will hammer out cooperation in a range of fields from climate change and agriculture to using German green-tech to manage China's breakneck economic growth.
But the meeting comes at a sensitive time, as China grapples with Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests and Germany gears up to celebrate 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9.
Merkel, who grew up under communism in East Germany, invoked the momentous events of 1989 which came months after China's Tiananmen Square crackdown, when she recalled in China in July that the events "enabled us to have a free dialogue".
In her latest weekly video message, Merkel stressed the importance of free speech in the former British colony Hong Kong, handed back to the mainland in 1997, and criticised China's life jail term for a leading ethnic Uighur activist.
Hong Kong government talks with student leaders set for Friday were called off hours after demonstrators on Thursday vowed to ratchet up their protests, plunging the financial hub into fresh crisis.
Chinese senior diplomats told a pre-trip briefing that "we are ready to carry out human rights dialogue and cooperation on the basis of mutual respect and non-interference in other countries' internal affairs", stressing that "the question of Hong Kong is China's internal affair".
'Fair-weather phase ending'
Of more immediate concern to hundreds of corporate chieftains on the sidelines of the official talks -- and a business meet in the northern port city of Hamburg where Li speaks Saturday -- will be the rules governing companies in China.
China, the world's number two economy, is Germany's second-biggest export market outside Europe. Last year Europe's biggest economy sold goods worth 67 billion euros to China while imports topped 73 billion euros.
But investor concern has grown since Beijing has started cracking down on alleged malpractice by major firms. Last month it fined an affiliate of German carmaker Volkswagen more than $40.5 million for price-fixing.
Germany's ambassador to China, Michael Clauss, said this week China must make its anti-monopoly investigations more transparent and abide more closely by the rule of law, reported Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.
The Asia-Pacific Committee of German Business said Thursday that its companies should enjoy "equal treatment" in China, including the right to bid for public tenders and set up shop without a joint venture partner.
"A new level of market opening is an important step for the future development of the Chinese economy," said the business group.
Sebastian Heilmann of Berlin's Mercator Institute for China Studies said Germany remains China's "anchor country" in Europe but that the "fair weather phase" is ending as China shifts from being a workshop for foreign companies to a competitor.
Li's Germany visit, the start of his second Europe tour this year, comes after Merkel in July travelled to China, her seventh official trip there. Chinese President Xi Jinping came to Berlin in March.
The Chinese premier will then travel on to Russia, which is engaged in a bitter standoff with the West over the Ukraine crisis.
China, which has made clear it is willing to fill any trade gaps caused by tit-for-tat sanctions amid the Ukraine crisis, is also expected to sign a host of commercial deals in Moscow.
Li next visits Italy where he is set to meet Western leaders at an Asia-Europe Meeting on October 16-17.