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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