Interview with China's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs 'The West Has Become Very Conceited'

In a SPIEGEL interview, China's vice minister of foreign affairs, Fu Ying, 58, accuses Europeans and Americans of perpetuating Cold War stereotypes of her country, rejects allegations surrounding the treatment of artist Ai Weiwei and disputes notions that Beijing would like to rule the world.

SPIEGEL: Madame Fu Ying, few countries are more interesting to the West right now than China -- and few others alarm the West to the same degree, now that you have launched your first aircraft carrier. Why does China need to arm itself to this extent?

Fu Ying: The first aircraft carrier going to sea is a very exciting event in China. It's something the Chinese people longed for. People think it's a natural step in the growth of the Chinese military -- although this so-called aircraft carrier was really just a framework of a second-hand aircraft carrier that we refitted and will only be used for scientific research and training purposes. It's far, far from being a full-fledged aircraft carrier. In that sense, China is well behind other countries, let alone the United States which has had a mature and highly developed fleet of aircraft carriers for a long time now.

SPIEGEL: Are there not more pressing areas where that money could go rather than towards increasing the military budget?

Fu Ying: A number of areas are given greater priority than the development of our defenses. The greatest emphasis is on economic development, the well-being of the people and the sharing of the wealth. My daughter's generation is the first that never experienced hunger in this country. That is unbelievable progress. Your concern about the Chinese military appears to me to be clouded by stereotypes about China based in the Cold War thinking of the division between us ideologically. You feel comfortable with aircraft carrier ownership by your allies, like the United States and France, but you are more concerned if China also has one.

SPIEGEL: How far will China go in terms of defending its interests? In the dispute over the sovereignty of the South China Sea, the tone can at times be quite sharp.

Fu Ying: We, too, are wondering why there is such strong rhetoric, since the countries involved are already engaged in dialogues on the basis of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002. But this is a dispute of words, and what matters is that the shipping traffic in the South China Sea remains peaceful and there is no war or conflict going on.

SPIEGEL: The Americans clearly have doubts about your intentions. Pakistan is believed to have provided China with access to the wreckage of the high-tech US helicopter that crashed during the operation against Osama bin Laden. Are you in a position to confirm whether this is true?

Fu Ying: Both China and Pakistan have denied this rumor. I think the most important thing is the question of whether China and the US are enemies. Are we going to be in a war? Are we preparing for a war against each other? We certainly don't see it that way. It is not very friendly that the US maintains a weapons embargo against China. We have no intention to threaten the US, and we don't see the US as a threat to us. The West tends to place China in the framework of the Cold War. This puzzles China a lot.

SPIEGEL: Many Germans, while respecting China's development, see your country more as a rival than a partner. Is that something that you can understand?

Fu Ying: I'm grateful you raised that point because it is something that has been on my mind for a long time. If you fundamentally accept that China's growth has lifted countless people in the country out of poverty, then you also have to agree that China has done things right. One must also accept that there can be a different political system. The countries in the West think they have the only system that works and they have narrowed down "democracy" to a multi-party election system, which works well for some countries, most of the time, but as we are now seeing with the latest financial crisis, they sometimes experience difficulties too. The West has become very conceited. At the end of the day, democracy alone cannot put food on the table. That's the reality.

SPIEGEL: China's decision-making process appears to be shielded with black box secrecy, and even long-time observers are puzzled over how political decisions are taken. Does it really come as a surprise to you that many are wary of China's intentions?

Fu Ying : China's political system is a product of China's history. It is based on the country's own culture and is subject to a constant reform process, which includes the building up of democratic decision-making processes in China. In order to make the right decisions, you have to listen to the people and their criticism. No government can survive if it loses touch with the people and reality. And we have a very critical view of ourselves.

SPIEGEL: The West perceives a lack of transparency and rule of law in the Chinese model.

Fu Ying: I think at the moment it is the Western governments that are having problems. We are observing what is going on in the West. We try to understand why so many governments made so many mistakes. Why do political parties make commitments they cannot fulfill? Why do they spend so much more than they have? Has the West been stagnating since the end of the Cold War? Or has it just become conceited?

SPIEGEL: Democracies are very complicated, and compared to tightly ruled systems, they are at a disadvantage. Do you feel superior?

Fu Ying: Superiority is the not the word we use. The Chinese are very modest. We respect your success and we learn from you. You are in the post-industrialized era. Many of the problems you encounter might occur in China later. So we want to see how you address those problems, and if we can learn from you.

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