Are the Chinese more liberal or conservative?

China (competence)

Christoph Müller-Hofstede

Christoph Müller-Hofstede

To person

is a freelance author and was a speaker in the events department of the Federal Agency for Civic Education until 2020. He is co-editor of the "China Country Report" (2014). [email protected]

At the beginning of 2021 it can be stated that the corona pandemic has contributed to a further exacerbation of the controversies and conflicts between China and the West [1]. While both Europe and the US did not do well in dealing with the crisis, China (like other Asian countries) was able to contain the virus after initial difficulties and use the pandemic to further expand its power internally and externally. In the words of a leading official of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): "The West is descending, the East is rising." [2] The increase in power in China is evident in many fields and indicates a tectonic shift in the relationship between the West and China . While there is broad consensus on the fact of China's rise, what conclusions can be drawn is questionable. The argument about this has only just begun. [3]

In view of the current attempts to re-understand what is going on in China, it is important to realize the central role of China as a projection screen for European desires, fear and fascination. This goes back to the time of the Renaissance and Enlightenment: "Since the West began to get involved with China - with the beginning of the missionary overtures in the 16th century - the heavenly realm has been a potent dreamland for churchmen, merchants and philosophical intellectuals viewed with almost paradisiacal possibilities: for Christian conversion, for economic profit, for lessons in governance. The embrace of Maoism by Western radicals is therefore the latest repetition of a centuries-old tendency to view the happily remote, exotic China as a treasure trove for political, social, to identify cultural and economic virtues ". [4]

After Mao's death in 1976, the Maoist left disintegrated and pursued careers in journalism, science and politics, often with the Greens, but also with conservative parties, as the example of José Manuel Barroso shows. The later euphoria of Western politicians and business leaders about the opening of the Chinese market in the 1980s and 1990s in journalism and science then tied in a strange way to the phase of cultural revolutionary projections in the West - also accompanied by a "chronic disdain for human rights". [ 5]

At the moment there is clearly growing mistrust and criticism of China's domestic and foreign policy behavior in the public debate both internationally and in Germany - regardless of whether it is about the repressive measures in Xinjiang, the suppression of the opposition in Hong Kong and in China itself, or around the plans for a "New Silk Road" [6] that extend to Europe. These developments affect essential questions of political education in democracy, not least because they also call into question the self-image of the West as a "normative project" (Heinrich August Winkler) - inextricably linked with the values ​​of the European Enlightenment, democracy, separation of powers, human rights seems. The Western image of the human being as a self-determined individual is also being scrutinized. [7] How these new questions and contexts can be dealt with in a meaningful way in political education is the focus of this article.

The West's losing bet

As recently as 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), great hopes were linked to long-term integration of the country into the rules-based world order of the West and domestic democratization. There were also supporters of this path among many Chinese intellectuals and even in parts of the party elite, which was based on trends in Chinese society such as the growing prosperity of an educated middle class and processes of pluralization and individualization. [8] The formula "change through trade", which came from the Cold War with the "Eastern Bloc", should also apply to China.

The idea of ​​"integrating China into the world" entered geostrategic deliberations in the USA long before China opened up. In 1967, in the midst of the escalating Vietnam War, Richard Nixon said in a prophetic contribution: "We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside of the international community so that it feeds its fantasies there (out there), cultivates its feelings of hatred and threatens its neighbors . It is not possible on this small planet to let a billion of its potentially most capable people live in angry isolation ". [9]

Only a few years later, with his visit to China in 1972, Nixon made a decisive contribution to bringing China out of this isolation. After Mao Zedong's death, economic liberalization and further opening up to the West became an essential prerequisite for the dynamic development of China from the mid-1980s. For almost three decades, the basic idea of ​​the liberalization of China - parallel to the increase in prosperity and social pluralization and individualization - accompanied the rise of the country despite all the setbacks and contradicting signals.

It was not until the "Leninist Counter-Reformation" [10] after Xi Jinping took office as General Secretary of the CCP in 2012 that the trend towards more liberalism, democracy and the rule of law, which had just been considered irreversible, was ended. The political and ideological control of society was massively strengthened, dissident voices were suppressed and the country was attuned to a much more aggressive foreign policy with the formula of "the re-blossoming of the nation". [11] At the latest with the abolition of the limitation of the presidential term of office introduced in the reform era at the National People's Congress in 2018, the "25-year wager of the West on China" [12] had failed.

These developments heralded a new phase in Sino-Western relations in which China was seen more clearly than ever as a "systemic threat" to Western values ​​and geopolitical positions. The then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo summed up the new view of China in a much-noticed speech in October 2019: "We have tolerated and promoted the rise of China for decades, even if this rise was at the expense of American values, Western democracy, the Security and common sense went. "[13]

The EU's strategy for China was also revised in March 2019 and presented a new perspective on China as an opposing power: "China is at the same time a cooperation partner in various policy areas with whom the EU is pursuing closely coordinated goals, a negotiating partner with whom the EU can find a balance of interests must be an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rivalthat promotes alternative models of governance. "[14]

In Germany, the Federation of German Industries (BDI) called on German and European politicians in a position paper to take measures against inappropriate economic activities by China, since all expectations that China would gradually develop into a liberal economy had been disappointed. The convergence thesis is no longer tenable. [15] A motion by the FDP parliamentary group in the German Bundestag in October 2020 calls for a "readjustment" of German and European China policy. "China's rapid development is not based on democracy, the rule of law and a free market economy. Rather, with its state capitalist and authoritarian one-party system, China is designing a counter-model to Western democracy. This poses immense challenges," [16] is the diagnosis. In particular, therefore, the expansion of "China expertise" is required: "In order to understand the history and present of China's relations with the rest of the world, especially with Europe, and the various currents of thought in the party, society, economy and in intellectual circles in China, it is necessary to expand China's expertise in this country in authorities, political parties, schools and universities as well as in other organizations. "[17]

The development and expansion of China expertise or competence is at the center of a new political agenda. This can be seen as a direct consequence of the "West's bet" which has failed. If it is true that Western China competence is still underdeveloped, then it does indeed seem more important than ever to both keep access to China open and, in the medium term, to change the "climate of debate of political commitments with no alternative to China and an independent, strong European one." Develop a narrative ". [18] What role can political education play here? What competencies are available, what open questions arise in view of a geopolitical transition that some observers associate with the beginning of a "new Cold War", [19] a division of the world into two antagonistic blocks?

China in Political Education: Skills and Open Questions

"In the 21st century, people and democracies must work ever more closely together in order to overcome cross-border challenges, to learn from one another, to support one another and to look after a common planet. In diverse societies, the skills are necessary for participation in the Democracy is required within each country, including those required for understanding and participating in regional and global societies. "[20] The global challenge of Chinese ascension thus forces us to think about the role of education in general and the political Thinking about education in particular.

In the study "Knowing China, Can China" by the Mercator Institute for China Studies, published in 2018, the Federal and State Centers for Civic Education are given an "important function": "They can react faster than school publishers to new developments and give teachers and students up-to-date information accessible. "[21] After the boom of the topic in the 1990s and around the Olympic Games of 2008, according to the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb)," China issues in view of the growing importance and the rapid pace Developments within the country are clearly underrepresented ". [22] Nevertheless, "the bpb attaches great importance to the dispute. It does not want to make China understandable as an individual case, but also illustrates the changing global context and encourages schoolchildren and students to think about it." [23] A good political education must accompany the public and political debates about China and combine with the breadth of scientific expertise and civil society initiatives. But which priorities should it set?

China as a systemic rival
Traditionally, political education (in Germany) has understood itself as "intellectual protection of the constitution" within the framework of the concept of a "contentious democracy". It is therefore tempting at first to see a new focus in the dispute with China. Not only since Xi Jinping took office has it become apparent that China sees itself as a systemic and strategic competitor primarily to the USA, but also to the European Union. [24]

The political scientist and sinologist Sebastian Heilmann, for example, urgently warns against China's competitive advantage in the implementation of an image of man that is radically opposed to the ideal of the autonomous, self-reliant individual of the European Enlightenment. [25] The "digital Leninism" of China with its new control and control possibilities could develop a new attraction in developing and emerging countries with unstable and conflict-ridden societies in the medium term. "China's model for digital civilization is an agile hierarchical order that specifically and seamlessly develops digital control technologies in order to steer a conflict-prone mass society into politically defined paths." [26] The Chinese government's image of man is said to come with the advance of herding behavior in many societies gain ground. With the foreseeable further economic and technological rise, China could be put in a position worldwide to establish an alternative system based on digital conditioning and control. This order - so Heilmann - stands in radical contrast to the human image of liberal democracies and market economies.

This gloomy scenario may or may not be considered realistic, but political education must also address the geopolitical power issues raised here at the level of politics and ideologies. However, as Heilmann emphasizes, these are always questions for ourselves, especially for the societies and political institutions of Europe, which have to muster the strength to develop their own competitive digital offers and platforms. In short: A sober look at one's own and foreign power resources and geostrategic realities should go into political education with and about China. The European dimension of political education will have to be strengthened, because the fight for "digital sovereignty" can only be won at European level.

At the same time, it would be negligent in this phase to meet the phenomenon of the Chinese rise with a defensive narrative that sees European self-assertion one-dimensionally as part of a systemic competition and does not abandon a Eurocentric perspective. [27]

Getting to know China and the Chinese (new)
Any discussion about "more Chinese competence" must first become clear about the fundamental imbalance between knowledge of China in Germany and knowledge of Germany and other western countries in China. "China knows us. But we don't know China," sums up the sinologist Marina Rudyak. [28] Only 500 students start studying sinology each year, Japanese studies are almost three times as popular. Nonetheless, this seems to be an international trend that has to do with China's poor image and the deteriorating research opportunities and repression in the country. [29]

The journalist Mark Siemons advocates not only framing the confrontation with China in abstract opposites (authoritarianism versus democracy), but rather to bear in mind that societies clash here whose "collective consciousness" is composed of many other elements. [ 30] We recommend an orientation towards the "new sinology" of the Australian sinologist Geremie Barmé, who - at a very critical distance from the regime in Beijing - has been dealing with the intellectual debates in China for decades. China and Chinese culture encompassed much more spatially and historically than the interpretation of the current government suggests. In order to counter the instrumentalization of an official term of Chinese culture, it is necessary to know the original terms and ideas that the Chinese government is instrumentalizing. Only then will it be possible to have a new conversation with the Chinese and global public in order to be able to assess the diversity and importance of Chinese traditions in relation to one's own traditions and the universal principles of the European Enlightenment.

Making the largely unknown diversity of intellectual discourse in China visible would be a task for political education. Voices and positions that cannot be inserted into a Western coordinate system are also important. The portal "Reading the China Dream" operated in Canada, for example, offers an excellent selection of translations of articles by conservative, liberal and progressive intellectuals in China. These voices should also be made available in German translation. [31]

An expansion of the dialogue with China is also necessary, even if this is made immensely difficult in view of the restrictions, repression and censorship measures in China. Enlightenment and knowledge about these dark sides of contemporary China remain an indispensable part of enlightenment political education: intellectuals threatened by censorship and repression such as Xu Zhangrun, He Weifang and Zhang Qianfan and others should be regularly invited to guest lectures and stays in Germany - in cooperation with institutions political education.

Equally significant (and undiscovered in political education) are the results of years of field research - for example about the astonishing (and threatened) revival of religious life in post-Maoist China and about the many unknown people in this country who are rewriting the history of China from a samizdat perspective try. [32] The exchange with the Chinese "periphery", especially Hong Kong and Taiwan [33] as a functioning (and threatened) democracy on Chinese soil, can also be made fruitful for political education.

At the same time, cooperation with the controversially discussed Confucius Institutes at the universities should not be ruled out from the outset; there, too, there is untapped "scope for what is feasible". [34]

Overall, openness and curiosity are important as an "attitude", as is the willingness to develop dialogues with clear standards and plural positions (including those of one's own values). "The willingness to research, to question and to contrast your thinking with your own thinking is perhaps the most challenging, but also the most important way to get in contact with the Chinese." [35]


China is one of the "unreasonable demands of modernity"; its rise over the past 30 years has made the world even more confusing and complex. The confrontation with China in political education and in other areas of our decentralized and pluralistic society cannot be reduced to a formula, and certainly not into a rigid friend-foe scheme. How and whether the deeply interlinked Western and Chinese worlds will deal with the global challenges together is an open question. What is certain, however, is that new dialogues and schools of thought are needed - on the Chinese as well as the Western side. New tasks await political education.