Cultural Rela­tivism and Power Blindness: Some critical obser­va­tions on the state of Germany’s China debate

Foto: Shut­ter­stock

For decades, Sinol­o­gists who were largely blind to China’s expansive power politics have dominated Germany’s political advice circles, culti­vating an image of China that our author calls “Late Orien­talism”. Shaped by roman­ti­cism, it struggles with a difficult question: How to deal with a rising, anti-demo­c­ratic superpower?

Beijing, April 1986: As the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine melts down, Russian students at our Chinese univer­sity expe­ri­ence a major loss of authority. They avoid fellow students from the Soviet satellite countries of Eastern Europe, and seem embar­rassed in the company of students from capi­talist societies, like Hong Kong, where I’m from. I ask a Hungarian friend, Balazs, why. “They can’t tell us what to do any more”, he says. Until then, the Russians were at the top of a communist student hierarchy barely visible to outsiders. From that moment they begin to fall. 

Portrait von Didi Kirsten Tatlow Sonntag

Didi Kirsten Tatlow is a Berlin based jour­nalist. From 2003 to 2017, she reported from China for news­pa­pers such as The South China Morning Post and The New York Times.

But Balazs doesn’t think that the Soviet Union is the problem, anyway. He’s more concerned about the country where we are all studying. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has launched economic reform that’s happening at a cracking pace – without any political reform. “An optimist is someone who believes that the Russians are coming,” he says. “A pessimist is someone who thinks that the Chinese are coming.” Balazs is a pessimist, but he knows what he’s talking about. Soviet troops marched into his country in 1956. And history would prove him right: The People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949, is today older than the Soviet Union was when it broke up five years after Chernobyl.

Late Orien­talism as an Extension of the Colonial Tradition

Unlike Balazs, students from West Germany and elsewhere in Europe studying with us at the Beijing Language Institute (today the Beijing Language and Culture Univer­sity), had a different, dreamier vision of China, one arising from their idealist Enlight­en­ment tradition. They studied liter­a­ture, philos­ophy or tradi­tional Chinese medicine, not tech­nology, trade or western medicine, as students from Eastern Europe or devel­oping nations did.

This gener­a­tion of sinol­o­gists dominated policy advice circles in Germany for decades and is influ­en­tial today in decisions made by business, state govern­ments and the federal govern­ment. Their view is one I dub “Late Orien­talism”: Strate­gi­cally blind, its roman­ti­cism hides the reality of China’s will to power.

The Late Orien­tal­ists don’t under­stand that a party-led China could one day become so strong, perhaps already is, that it can challenge demo­c­ratic norms throughout the world, for example by inter­fering in an intrans­parent manner in open societies, changing inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions to suit its interests, or, in the case of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, isolating entire countries and regions.

The Late Orien­talist argument goes like this: Yes, there are problems with China, but the criticism is often the product of western stereo­types. China is not under­mining the west, that’s a false percep­tion, perhaps even a sign of the resur­gence of a “Yellow Peril” attitude that in the past incited racism against people from East Asia. Cultural differ­ences, no matter how carefully formu­lated, should not be mentioned, as that’s racist. Concerns about the open society are prej­u­diced and exag­ger­ated. The tougher, more critical stance emerging today in Australia and the United States, for example, cannot, should not, be applied to Germany as the situation here is – somehow – different.

The irony is that while Late Orien­talism seeks to deflect and correct western ignorance and arrogance, in reality it repro­duces it by under­es­ti­mating the Chinese party-state’s will to power. That renders it blind to how the party is furthering its interests. The party exploits this: Point out the influence of party-led Chinese student orga­ni­za­tions in western univer­si­ties and one should expect to be denounced as anti-foreigner, even racist, by the orga­ni­za­tion in Beijing.

Important: Nothing I write is aimed at the ordinary people of China. The debate is about the party-state, its function, and how it seeks to manip­u­late and dominate.

Mao Mania among the ’68 Gener­a­tion: Was it the Work of the Domestic Security Agency?

The roots of Late Orien­talism lie partly in the personal biogra­phies of today’s Sinol­o­gists. First encoun­ters with China for those growing up after World War II mostly arose from a position of great physical distance to China. Often, it was small things that awoke a lifelong fasci­na­tion in a country that seemed so different. A map. A pair of chop­sticks brought back by a traveling relative.

Others believed that they’d found in Chinese communism an alter­na­tive to Soviet and Eastern European communism. In reality, Chinese communism was at least as brutal as the European versions, just less acces­sible for non-Chinese. Mao exercised a powerful attrac­tion for many of the maturing Sinol­o­gists seeking an alter­na­tive to the capi­talism of the United States. Only later would we learn that alle­giance to Mao was in part the creation of Germany’s very own domestic security agency that was attempting to counter the influence of the Soviet Union here – a massive histor­ical irony.

Germany must conduct difficult but necessary debates about China’s tech­no­log­ical, economic and security strate­gies, and develop its own strate­gies to manage these. Herein lies a problem: In Germany, strategic thinking has been viewed with suspicion since the end of World War II, and sinol­o­gists are little inter­ested in it. As James Binde­nagel and Philip Ackermann at the Univer­sity of Bonn wrote: “Lacking full sover­eignty during the Cold War and strug­gling with its history of nation­alism, mili­tarism, and Nazism, Germany developed a strategic culture that was passive, timid, morally uncom­pro­mising, and dominated by feelings of guilt.”

A rising gener­a­tion of sinol­o­gists has recog­nized the problem yet their influence is limited, occupying as they do junior positions in insti­tu­tional hier­ar­chies. Berlin’s still unde­vel­oped think tank culture offers few positions for influ­encing public debate. And younger researchers suffer from the growing over­spe­cial­iza­tion of academia – the public may not under­stand them.

The Reality: Chinese Interests at the EU Nego­ti­ating Table

The CPC, however, does have a strategy – using the global trade system and free market – achieve­ments of liberal modernity – to further its goals. By now, according to media reports, it is in a position to conduct large-scale surveil­lance over other, sovereign states, via doctored microchips, smart­phones and other tech­nolo­gies. Today, China is Germany’s biggest economic partner, yet Germany is only number six on China’s trading list. Other countries, such as India, are in similar situation, yet there people hold lively debates about the political conse­quences of economic depen­dency on China. It’s a real­iza­tion that is only slowly dawning in Germany, though its depen­dency on China’s market is plain for all to see. Volk­swagen, for example, now sells almost half of its cars in China.

As the problem creeps ever closer, it’s narrowing our room for maneuver to defend our demo­c­ratic values in an increas­ingly connected world. An example: By 2021, China will own 67 percent of the Greek port of Piraeus. Last year Greece, in a first for an EU country, blocked a critical, joint EU statement on human rights in China, at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. We should expect this trend to deepen – today, Chinese state-owned companies have invested in 13 European ports and own about 10 percent of all of Europe’s container port capacity. Ten years ago that figure was about one percent.

Europe is a network of open societies. We must expect that one day Chinese interests will sit at the nego­ti­ating table in Brussels.

I think Balazs would have under­stood these devel­op­ments very well. But somehow, it all feels far away, here in Germany, where few China experts seem willing to draw conse­quences from the fact that defending liberal values requires more than just being understanding.


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