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