The China Question Time to Find a New Approach to Beijing

China's Silk Road Summit was a clear demonstration of the country's political and economic heft. But with three major historical anniversaries approaching for the country, it is time for the West to fundamentally rethink its relations with Beijing.

Billy H. C. Kwok/The New York Time/ Redux/ Laif

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"If you know the other and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles."
Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"


China's emperors used to receive their guests and vassals in the Forbidden City or in their summer residences. But today, their successors only rarely do so. There are simply too many of them coming. So to host large receptions, Chinese President Xi Jinping has had a sumptuous conference center built on the outskirts of Beijing, amidst lush gardens and pavilions, not far from the Great Wall.

Last week, it was packed, as delegations from 150 countries showed up, including 37 heads of state and government, almost twice as many as attend the annual G-20 summit. They were there at Xi's invitation for the second Silk Road Summit, celebrating China's global infrastructure and development program, officially known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

At the first summit two years ago, only 29 presidents and prime ministers attended. This time, in addition to stalwart Chinese allies from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, several high-ranking European officials, including the heads of government of Italy and Austria, made their way to Beijing. Germany sent Economics Minister Peter Altmaier.

But not all of the world's leading countries made an appearance: The U.S. decided to turn down the invitation, as did India, which had also skipped the first event.

The guest list of the Silk Road Summit is the diplomatic response to a number of far-reaching questions: How should the world deal with China? How closely should it cooperate with China? To what extent can it trust Beijing?

None Can Ignore It

China has achieved economic, political and technological greatness the magnitude of which the world has not seen since the rise of the United States. The question of how to deal with China is more important for some countries than for others, but none can ignore it.

With every new achievement reached and every human rights violation committed by Beijing, this question becomes increasingly difficult to answer. To say that China is complicated and contradictory is a platitude. It is the dimensions of its contradictions that distinguish China from other difficult countries.

China's achievements since the beginning of its reform and opening policy have astonished observers in industrialized and emerging countries alike. The country has undergone a degree of economic and social transformation that nobody thought possible 40 years ago while the prosperity and number of jobs created by its booming economy exceed any historical comparison. China's technological advances have debunked the popular notion that innovation only thrives in pluralistic societies.

But this progress has been accompanied by a level of repression and control which, in its digital dimension, eclipses even the situation in North Korea. China's leadership is subjecting the Uighur Muslim minority to a security regime that is reminiscent of what the world saw in the 1930s, according to a senior U.S. State Department official. There is concern that Beijing will expand the digital surveillance systems that it now uses to suppress the Uighur population in the Xinjiang region to other parts of the country -- and perhaps even export them one day.

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The contradictions of modern China are so extreme that they prompt extreme reactions, ranging from uncritical admiration, particularly in business circles, to flat-out rejection of the "Chinese model," especially among human rights activists.

Beijing's juggernaut development drive represents both a political and intellectual challenge. It is difficult to form a consistent opinion of a country whose size, population and complexity are comparable more to a continent than to a Western nation-state. Do the conditions inherent to China's transformation justify the methods employed by its government? Do these methods devalue what the Chinese have achieved over the past 40 years? What concrete conclusions can be drawn?

There can be no conclusive answers to such questions because modern China remains a work in progress. Although the political leadership is endeavoring to convey the impression of dynastic stability and has declared Xi as head of state for life, the country is still undergoing massive changes. This year marks the anniversary of three events that have shaped the contradictions, image and self-image of today's China.

I. Exactly 100 years ago, on May 4, 1919, 3,000 students set off in Beijing to protest the decision by the victorious Allies of World War I not to return the region surrounding Jiaozhou Bay to China, a region which had been lost by the German colonial power, leaving it instead to China's regional rival, Japan. The Communist Party -- along with other political movements that would come to shape Chinese history -- traces its roots back to this "May Fourth Movement," making it a key date in the emergence of modern China.

Outside China, little is known about the significance of this event, and this ignorance is symptomatic of the imbalance in the relationship of many countries to Beijing. "China knows us. But we don't know China," German sinologist Marina Rudyak recently wrote in an essay for the Center for Liberal Modernity, a Berlin-based think tank. This lack of knowledge often leads to simplistic and ahistorical debates in the West about topics like China's global quest for power and the Silk Road Initiative.

Yes, the Communist Party has shamelessly rewritten Chinese contemporary history and manipulated it for its own benefit. But even beyond the propaganda, many Chinese have their own view of history, and this changes their perception of China's current trade conflicts and their understanding of globalization.

Beijing capitalizes on all of the advantages of its huge economy, subsidizes entire industrial sectors and exerts economic pressure on other countries, while limiting access to its own markets.

A long Memory

Many Chinese are surprised that Europeans find this objectionable. When the West laid down the rules of global trade, Europe's great powers didn't bother with subsidies or market restrictions. They sent warships up the Pearl River and the Yangtze, muscling their way into Chinese ports and establishing colonies, which they called "concessions," such as the region surrounding Jiaozhou Bay.

"The Chinese want to beat us because there's a long historical memory," one of Germany's leading business experts on China, BASF CEO Martin Brudermüller, recently said, adding that this explains "the drive and ambition of the Chinese." It is a worldview that one must be familiar with when it comes to dealing with the country.

Not only does China have a different view of history and more far-reaching memories of globalization than most Europeans, but on Chinese world maps America lies far to the east, while Europe often appears as a small peninsula to the northwest of Russia. The Pacific, the subcontinent and Africa appear much larger.

History, geography and globalization: measured against the problems of dealing with China, these terms could seem abstract, but they're not. They remind us just how little we in the West know about China. Europe -- especially countries like Germany that have close economic ties with Beijing - must significantly expand its China knowledge.

The Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies remains one of the few think tanks in the world that specializes in China, but there are still far too few China experts in Europe. European media, including DER SPIEGEL, are not nearly as strongly represented in China as in America -- and are far behind the American media presence in China as well.

A desire to better understand China does not mean adopting a Chinese view of the world. On the contrary, it sharpens our perspective on the opportunities and risks of China's ascent and is a precondition for making difficult decisions.

II. It was 70 years ago that Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China, with the Communist Party planning to celebrate the event on October 1 with a military parade. President Xi is to drive past the troops dressed in a modern stylized Mao suit and salute them with the words "Tongzhimen hao!" -- "Greetings, comrades!"

It will be a masquerade. Although the Communist Party today has about 90 million members and permeates all areas of public life, Xi's China is in many ways the exact opposite of Mao's China. Mao was a utopian who tried to keep his country in a state of permanent revolution. Xi Jinping is a bureaucrat of power who strives for order and stability, no matter what the cost.

Mao's one-and-a-half-ton portrait still hangs at Tiananmen Gate, but the party has transformed from an ideological movement into an instrument of power and a career vehicle. Millions of party members are currently collecting points on a propaganda app that quizzes them on their knowledge of Xi Jinping speeches -- although they take great pains not to exceed the score of the leader of their party cell. Those who take Marxism seriously are seen as troublemakers. When a group of leftist students campaigned for the formation of an independent union in a welding machine factory last summer, the police raided their homes and arrested around 50 of them.

But there is one thing that connects Mao's and Xi's vision of China: the global aspirations and the determination to change the world. As British sinologist Julia Lovell writes in a recent monograph, Maoism spread like a fever around the globe, as an intellectual fashion in many Western countries and as a murderous ideology that inspired militant movements in developing countries from Cambodia to Colombia.

A More Pugnacious Approach

China's current global vision is no fever, but rather ambition, poured in concrete. From airstrips on Pacific islands to dams on the Mekong River and the quay walls of ports on the Mediterranean, the New Silk Road -- Xi's multi-billion-dollar development program -- is designed to cement China's geopolitical objectives.

It was the U.S. that first realized that China was rocking the foundations of the established world order. Under President Barack Obama, Washington opted for a strategic "Pivot to Asia," while the Trump administration has opted for a more pugnacious approach, labeling China a "strategic competitor" and a "revisionist" power that is using cheap loans and political power to bring one country after the other under its influence. This spring, the European Union followed suit. Using almost the same words, the European Commission wrote in a strategy paper that China is "a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance" and "an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership."

It remains to be seen whether such declarations of rivalry will impress Beijing. Prime Minister Li Keqiang was reportedly surprised by the skepticism that he encountered on his last trip to Brussels. Sending a clear message to China is to be welcomed, even if the EU strategy paper will most likely initially contribute more to Europe's internal cohesion than to any change of course by China.

Of far greater importance, though, are concrete steps, such as French President Emmanuel Macron's decision to invite German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to join him in talks with Xi during a state visit to Paris -- an impressive new development in the history of European diplomacy. The countries of the European Union will never be able to act together on foreign policy with the same degree of unity as the United States. But EU member states must rigorously coordinate their diplomatic approach to China on diverse issues, ranging from their stance on the controversial network supplier Huawei, to human rights issues and geopolitical conflicts, like the one brewing in the South China Sea.

The projects that Europe initiates to counter China's economic power -- in Europe and on its periphery -- must also be concrete. The U.S. has reacted to the Silk Road Initiative by launching a $60 billion fund to fully resume the tedious business of pursuing development cooperation in many countries around the world. Who is going to step in and do this in the emerging economies of North Africa and the Middle East? Who is willing to support energy and infrastructure projects from the Balkans to Morocco? If the conditions are fair and the bidding process is transparent, there is no reason why we shouldn't cooperate with China in those regions. But this is primarily a task for Europe as it struggles to cope with a constant influx of refugees.

III. It was 30 years ago, on June 4, 1989, that tanks rolled across Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The reformer Deng Xiaoping, who had launched China's economic miracle, crushed the largest democracy movement that the country had seen since 1919 and hundreds of people were killed, both students and soldiers. The exact number of fatalities remains unknown.

In early June of this year, no one in China will hear or read a critical word in the censored media about this traumatic event. The student leaders of 1989 are in exile, civil rights activists will be sent out of the big cities to the countryside weeks ahead of the anniversary, and the state has the press and the internet firmly under its control.

These are the "alternative models of governance" that the EU rightly condemns in its strategy paper. China has established a surveillance and security regime that is unrivaled anywhere else in the world.

The full extent of this sophisticated control apparatus has become apparent over the past two years in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, where state security forces are monitoring and suppressing the predominantly Muslim minority Uighurs, who number roughly 11 million. Beijing justifies its crackdown by pointing to a spate of riots and attacks involving militant Uighurs and compares its actions with measures taken by Western countries to combat terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

But even some Chinese who support the goals of this policy are repulsed by how the state is pursuing it. All Muslim inhabitants of Xinjiang are intensively policed, both conventionally and with cutting-edge digital technology, by cameras that film every alley and every taxi, by "WiFi sniffers" that can harvest the data of their mobile phones at checkpoints, and by neighbors who are encouraged to denounce them. Anyone who acts suspiciously can be arrested. According to estimates by Adrian Zenz, a German researcher who has been focusing on Xinjiang, roughly one million people have been detained in prisons and internment camps, euphemistically called "re-education centers."

The government collects the personal data of all residents, including their DNA profiles. A new facial recognition software now even allows Uighurs to be identified by their biometric features. China is already applying similar technologies, which are not yet quite so advanced, in provinces outside Xinjiang. As the New York Times has reported, Chinese companies are also exporting such systems abroad, especially to authoritarian regimes, but also to Western countries.

Historic Obligation

Beijing's crackdown in Xinjiang is forcing Western governments to rethink their relationship with China. Only addressing human rights issues behind closed doors during state visits is no longer an option. EU countries like Germany, which are painfully familiar with the consequences of totalitarianism, have a historic obligation to bring their full weight to bear on this issue.

This does not invalidate the arguments put forward over the years by so-called China realists like former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. When Kissinger travelled to China in the early 1970s on behalf of then-President Richard Nixon, the country was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, in which unspeakable crimes were committed. No one would deny that it was nevertheless right to establish relations with Beijing at that time -- just as it was right for President Bill Clinton to reach out to China five years after the Tiananmen massacre.

But 20th century political pragmatists had no way of knowing what technological progress would do for 21st century autocracies. The use of these digital tools of human control must be contained by negotiations, just as international treaties have curbed the spread of nuclear weapons. A foreign policy based on universal values must be prepared to bear the anticipated political costs of pursuing this type of policy.

In the U.S., 24 senators and 19 representatives from both sides of the aisle have urged the Trump administration to challenge Beijing on the Uighur question and impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against top-ranking Chinese officials in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The Magnitsky Act is the U.S. government's most potent weapon in dealing with foreign politicians implicated in humans rights abuses and allows it, among other things, to freeze the accounts of those affected and prohibit them from entering the country.

So far, the EU has no comparable diplomatic remedy at its disposal, but in March, the European Parliament voted to change that. The European Commission will hopefully approve the resolution, especially in view of recent developments in China.

Even more effective would be a broad initiative - one which includes the U.S. -- to establish global standards for the use of digital mass surveillance technology, similar to the push that led to the international disarmament negotiations in the 1960s and the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) process in the 1970s. As a digital power, the EU may pale in comparison to the U.S. and China today, but its data protection regulations are exemplary worldwide. In the interests of its citizens, Europe should work to ensure that these standards are not set by China in the future.

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