How do you begin to understand China?

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Interview: Urs Hafner

China is politically more communist than it was 20 years ago. The country is converging with authoritarian movements in the West, says political scientist and philosopher Prof. Dr. Ralph Weber.

UNI NOVA: Mr. Weber, the West lives better with an enemy far away. Has China replaced the Soviet Union in the 21st century, which in turn replaced the Ottoman Empire in the last century?

RALPH WEBER: No, I do not think so. The West had hardly any economic contacts with the Soviet Union, while China is its most important trading partner. And we are dealing with at least two Chinas: One is traditional, imperial, for us “exotic” China, which goes back a long way in history. The other China begins the communist revolution in 1949: the people's republic, led by the dictatorial party, led by the Marxist-Leninist party.

UNI NOVA: Isn't authoritarian China the continuation of the old empire?

WEBER: Some see it this way: Xi Jinping, the state president and - more importantly - the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party as emperor with a «heavenly mandate». He sometimes refers to Taoism and quotes Confucius, but of course always in such a way that it fits the ideology of the party. This stands above the state. Who is admitted to the party and who is not, determines it; those who refuse the invitation will hardly have a career anymore. And the party continues to campaign against corruption and the influence of Western education or for “increasing the quality of citizens”, as it is called in the jargon. These should be based on the Xi-Jinping thinking. In short: I don't think the analogy to the Empire is helpful.

UNI NOVA: Marxist-Leninist communism envisaged a sensible planned economy that produces what people really need, while China runs a hyper-capitalist economy. How does that work together?

WEBER: China is state capitalist. Many companies are owned by the state. But the private sector that it authorizes is also controlled. If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be a party member. Foreign companies have to accept that party members take part in their Chinese branches. The distinction between “public” and “private” that we know does not exist in China. In the early 2000s, it looked as if China was liberalizing its economy both internally and externally. In the West it was hoped that this would lead to political reforms, in keeping with the motto “change through trade”. Today China is more economically capitalist, but politically more communist than it was 20 years ago. That has not been well received in the West and also in Switzerland. It maintains more intensive economic relations with China than ever - keyword free trade agreement - but all too often ignores the human rights issue. That will not do.

UNI NOVA: You describe China's politics in sharp words. However, there are now many dictatorships in this world. The USA practices the death penalty, has a racist everyday culture and a particularly sexist president. Switzerland also maintains trade relations with the USA. Shouldn't she have to insist on human rights here too?

WEBER: By the way, the USA still runs Guantanamo ... What you do is what I call the argumentative leveling of the difference in values. Despite all the justified criticism, the USA is still a liberal-democratic state with a separation of powers, elections and a relatively independent media that can criticize political power. China, on the other hand, is ruled by a party that controls all media without exception and puts words like “separation of powers” ​​or “civil society” on the index.

UNI NOVA: China is not a Western state, and historically, its culture is not “democratic”. Are you not applying an inappropriate yardstick?

WEBER: Human rights are not negotiable, nor can they be pragmatically weakened. Point. If human rights are abused, it should not disavow the idea of ​​human rights, but those who abuse them. Communism, especially Mao's “great leap forward” and the Cultural Revolution, form an enormous break in Chinese history. You cannot adequately explain these and more recent events in the People's Republic of China with “culture”. The Cultural Revolution is not taboo in China for nothing. It is a national trauma ...

UNI NOVA: ... that Switzerland should take into account in its trade relations?

WEBER: Not the trauma, the human rights. Especially since Switzerland has historically had a special responsibility here. In addition, it was the first western state to recognize the People's Republic of China, as the Federal Council likes to emphasize. She practically rushed ahead in the western camp.

UNI NOVA: Anti-communist Switzerland paved the way for communist China to the West: How did that come about?

WEBER: Neutrality and established practice certainly played a role: Switzerland recognizes a state as soon as it has been constituted. Then the Federal Council wanted to protect the Swiss business people, who were mainly in Shanghai, as well as missionaries. It should not be forgotten that Swiss companies have been trading with China since at least the 18th century. The watch companies made the start, followed by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, and today many companies are even dependent on the Chinese market.

UNI NOVA: So what should Switzerland do?

WEBER: I am not saying which policy Switzerland should pursue. I am a scientist and try to bring technical knowledge and arguments into the social discussion. In a democracy, however, as is well known, the sovereign, the courts, the parliament and so on make the decisions. My analysis says: China is systematically increasing its influence in the UN, but also in individual European countries, and is systematically putting multilateralism under pressure by concluding special agreements with many states that serve its interests. The party state is deliberately infiltrating the West. Small states like Switzerland should defend themselves against this by consolidating alliances with other states or the EU, supporting the UN - for the defense of human rights, democracy and the rule of law - and upholding the freedom of research. Multilateralism is coming under pressure from China, so if you see value in it, you have to counter it. Small states benefit from multilateralism.

UNI NOVA: China is infiltrating the West: That sounds like a conspiracy theory.

WEBER: This homicide argument prevents a differentiated debate. I am not saying that “totalitarian China” wants to subjugate the “free West”. On the one hand, there is more than one China and a distinction must be made between the people and the party. Xi Jinping seems to be going too far for many Chinese with his personality cult or the lifting of the term limits. In China there is certainly - rarely public - criticism not only of this, but also of its handling of Hong Kong, the Covid 19 epidemic or the trade war with the USA, which is damaging to the country. And on the other hand, there is not only the free, constitutional West. For some years now, the liberal democracies have been increasingly familiar with the authoritarian temptation: Trump, Hungary, Poland, the National Front, the AfD and so on. Those who care about democracy must resist this temptation. The authoritarian movements of the West and authoritarian China maintain mutual contacts. The Chinese Communist Party ridicules multiculturalism and the effeminate liberal democracies that have no control over their populations and their borders. The agendas overlap here. And the corona crisis seems to confirm the authoritarians: Didn't China get the epidemic under control with resolute crackdowns?

UNI NOVA: Most authoritarians deny Corona.

WEBER: I'm not suggesting a simple dichotomy. Norway's right-wing party is working with the Chinese, while Sweden's right-wing party is pushing for the Chinese ambassador to be expelled from the country.

UNI NOVA: What is the position of official Switzerland actually?

WEBER: In 2017 and 2018 the Federal Council stated that the human rights situation in China had deteriorated, but in 2019 Federal President Ueli Maurer told the Swiss press in Beijing that he did not know whether the human rights situation had deteriorated ... It is known that in China in the In recent years thousands of people, including many human rights lawyers, have disappeared without a trace, not to mention the abject repression of the Uyghurs and Tibetans.

UNI NOVA: The question of Tibet seems to have disappeared from the Swiss public?

WEBER: The year 1999 marks a milestone in the Tibet issue and Switzerland's relationship with China. At that time there was a kind of thaw. The country was on its way to the WTO, the West hoped that the economic reforms would lead to political ones. And then President Jiang Zemin visited Switzerland. The entire Federal Council received him in Bern. But there was a scandal: on the edge of the Bundesplatz, activists demonstrated against the Chinese policy on Tibet. This angered Jiang Zemin so much that he hurled at Federal President Ruth Dreifuss: "You have lost a good friend."

UNI NOVA: But what didn't happen.

WEBER: Indeed, when Xi Jinping visited Switzerland in 2017, the police took the Tibetan demonstrators out of sight and hearing as a preventive measure. For this purpose, extras hired by the Chinese embassy waved Chinese flags. The so-called united front, which also includes the Chinese student associations, is a little known in Switzerland but is widely used by the Chinese party state.

UNI NOVA: Keyword united front: The Comintern, that is, the Communist International, has long since disbanded?

WEBER: The Comintern, yes, but not the underlying principle that China still applies today in its own way. Its united front is extremely active in many forms, worldwide and also in Switzerland. It is also known that Chinese authorities abroad approach their citizens and demand that they cooperate or - in the case of Tibetans or Uyghurs - intimidate them by referring to the family remaining in China. When the Dalai Lama appears in the USA, Chinese students demand a "counter-event" and invoke freedom of expression. Fudan University, in turn, has removed “academic freedom” from its statutes and replaced it with “loyalty to Xi Jinping's thinking”. Are you still allowed to cooperate as usual under these conditions? I mean no. But anyone who criticizes the Chinese party state exposes himself. People in the West are quickly referred to as "anti-Chinese" or "racist", which is not only absurd in terms of the matter, but also argues the representation of interests claimed by the Chinese Communist Party for the whole people.

Ralph Weber

has been Professor of European Global Studies at the European Institute of the University of Basel since 2014 and is currently President of the European Society for Chinese Philosophy. Born in Johannesburg in 1974, Weber studied political science at the University of St. Gallen and at the Institut des Hautes Études Internationales et du Développement in Geneva. This was followed by study visits to the University of Hawai'i in Mānoa and the University of Beijing, a doctorate in political science in St. Gallen and a habilitation in philosophy in Zurich. From 2008 to 2014 he worked as a senior assistant at the URPP Asia and Europe at the University of Zurich.

UNI NOVA: However, racism against the Chinese is widespread.

WEBER: In any case and now partially even reinforced by Corona. This is unacceptable. Nonetheless, we must hold the discussion about the threat to liberal democracy with its rule of law. It's just that we are ill-equipped. There is a lack of basic knowledge in society, but also scientific competence. We need to research global actors and networks with new epistemological approaches.

UNI NOVA: Numerous universities in German-speaking countries offer courses in Sinology, don't they?

WEBER: In Switzerland mainly in Zurich and Geneva. But we have far too few sinologists. In addition, these subjects understandably often choose “culturalist” approaches, that is, they ignore the question of power. In political science too, too little attention has been paid to authoritarianism. In the last few decades we have spelled out all possible variants of democracy there - but we still do not understand enough authoritarian regimes that are gaining ground globally.


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