Narratives for Europe: Reading Room - Fokke Obbema

Fokke Obbema

(1962) works at the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, where he has served as chief economics editor (2007-11) and France correspondent (2002-07). As chief economics editor he became fascinated by China in 2008, which resulted this year in his well-received book China and Europe.  It centers on the dilemma whether Europe should be afraid of China and its increasing global economic and political power, or whether Europe and China might overcome their cultural and political differences to develop a relationship of trust. In his current position as foreign editor and commentator at de Volkskrant, he writes about both China and Europe.

What can we learn from China?

Do Chinese people live in a completely separate wing of the human house with their own set of values and culture, as suggested by the British China expert Martin Jacques? Or are they ‘people just like us’, as the Italian missionary Matteo Ricci observed at the beginning of the 17th century? 

While writing my book China en Europa, waar twee werelden elkaar raken (China and Europe: where two worlds meet)* these two fundamentally different approaches in our attitude towards and thinking about China regularly came to mind. My own preference, let me make that clear from the outset, is the latter approach, stressing not so much the differences as the similarities between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

This not only seems to be the only fruitful way when it comes to attempting to avoid a strained relationship, but in my mind, it is also justified by the facts. Under the influence of globalisation, the basic trends in Western as well as Chinese society are consumerism and individualism. The rise of these trends in our part of the world is matched by a similar if not bigger rise in China. Talk to Chinese youngsters and you cannot fail to notice the similarities between their wishes and those of their Western counterparts – not only their materialistic dreams (own house, own car, own smartphone), but also their wish to balance their work and private life.

Of course, the starting points of Westerners and Chinese are substantially different, as a result of a different history and culture, the impact of which should not be underestimated. For instance, I certainly do not expect Chinese youngsters to start believing, let alone advocating, that democracy is the best solution for their country any time soon. That would go against their deeply engrained wish to shy away from politics. However, I am convinced that the increasing interaction between Chinese and Western people on all levels (be it in education, science, culture or business), as a result of globalisation, entails an exchange of ideas that, in time, will lead to a more thorough mutual understanding at the least.

The ‘people like us’ approach also seems to be the only viable option for both China and Europe in these economically adverse times. The considerable danger is that fear will dominate the relationship, as it has in the past, when the Chinese were perceived as the ‘Yellow Peril’ likely to invade our part of the world. This fear-mongering approach dates back to the late 19th century, when the German Emperor Wilhelm II predicted the imminent downfall of Christian Europe under the pressure of Chinese hordes. One would hope we would be too grown-up for this in the 21st century, but unfortunately we can still regularly find this attitude as an undertone in the Western media. This attitude is also dangerously promulgated by Martin Jacques in his ominously titled book, When China Rules the World. I would like to put forward and emphasise a more balanced approach: being aware of differences, but without overemphasising their importance; being keen on a better intellectual understanding of China and our own prejudices, but without naivety.

Understanding ‘the other’

To make my position clear in the debate on China, these observations seem useful when discussing the central question of this essay: What can we learn from China? When talking to China experts in China as well as Europe over the past two years this was in fact my favourite question. The mirror question – ‘What can China learn from us?’ – was rarely difficult for my interviewees, but inverting the question definitely was. The answers people came up with were rather limited. ‘Working hard’ was mentioned several times, especially by my Chinese counterparts, but to me that hardly seems to be something we can learn.

One of the most interesting observations came from a young member of parliament from Germany, Viola von Cramon, the Green Party’s China expert. “I’ve held the best discussions about my own party in China, with Chinese specialists on German politics,” she told me, to my great astonishment.

This gives pause for reflection. It points to an enormous willingness to learn on the Chinese side – to understand ‘the other’ in order to figure out what the ‘best practices’ are. This observation might come as a surprise, as in recent years the arrogance of Chinese politicians and businessmen has been intensely criticised. The late editor-in-chief of the French newspaper Le Monde, Erik Izraelewicz, even devoted a book to this phenomenon. In L’arrogance Chinoise this China expert pointed out that, behind the complacency, one can also discern a certain level of uncertainty among the Chinese elite. There is an apprehension about the consequences of their economic successes – with respect to the environment, the gap between rich and poor and the level of corruption, among other things. “The Chinese don’t need us to tell them what their problems are; they are acutely aware of them themselves,” Izraelewicz told me. But they do need solutions, and the Chinese are pragmatic enough to turn to Western ideas.

The resulting openness and intellectual curiosity is to be observed among the top leaders, who tellingly send their own children to the best British and American universities. But one can perceive it equally among intellectuals, from academics to representatives of think-tanks. To give just one example of this willingness in the realm of social science: the European concept of ‘social quality’, which is supposed to lead to a more sustainable and socially equal way of life, is well received by policymakers as well as academics in China, as it might be an answer to what they perceive as worrying levels of individualism within their society.

Learning from culture? 

It is most of all in this respect that we, Europeans, could learn from the Chinese – we can learn to learn. This may sound easy but it is in fact very hard, as we have to cope with our engrained sense of superiority. These are the product of a history of several centuries in which Western domination of the world has been taken for granted. Our efforts should be concentrated on perceiving China as it really is – without prejudices or projections. But is this possible. 

Historically we can discern some ‘Great Europeans’ who have studied China intensively – their efforts can be seen as examples, showing us what the pitfalls are. In the 18th century, the French philosopher and writer Voltaire was full of praise for the Chinese emperors, especially Emperor Qianlong, whom he called the ‘king-philosopher’. For Voltaire, Chinese society proved that it was perfectly possible to have a society of high moral standing without a dominant religion. He was charmed by Confucianism (he had a statue of Confucius in his study) and the meritocratic principle governing the selection of mandarins at China’s imperial court. Voltaire’s counterpart in Germany was philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who praised the Chinese for not being corrupt, unlike the Germans (quite an astonishing observation for us, nowadays!). Leibniz even dreamed of sending Chinese missionaries to Europe.

In reality, Europe sent Catholic missionaries to China and it was based on their reports that Leibniz and Voltaire became China adepts, without ever setting foot on Chinese soil. Their enthusiasm has to be seen in the context of the European problems of their time – the Thirty Years War for Leibniz and the fight against the Catholic Church for Voltaire. These were very powerful motivations for idealising China. In doing so the dark side of the Chinese system, for instance, the despotic nature of the imperial power, was eclipsed. In the 20th century, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre followed their example in an even more dramatic way, celebrating the new human being that Chairman Mao was creating while turning a blind eye to the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution. Sartre visited China only once. His convictions about China can only be understood in relation to his fight against Western capitalism.

These three examples of glorifying China can easily be counterbalanced by numerous others who negatively argued exactly the opposite, such as the German emperor Wilhelm II and his above-mentioned ‘Yellow Peril’ or the French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu, who emphasised the despotic nature of Chinese power. Especially in the 19th century, when European powers conquered the world, including China (albeit without formally colonising it), these negative images of China and the Chinese became predominant, in parallel with a firm belief in Western superiority. It is only now, with the rise of Asian powers in the 21st century, that our feeling of superiority is seriously questioned, in Asia as well as in our part of the world.

Sense of superiority

One might hope that this humbling experience would help us to be truly open and perceptive with respect to China, but this is far from easy. The means of raising the level of intellectual curiosity with respect to China, which is still at a surprisingly low level, are not obvious. European academic research into China has increased of course – it is no longer limited to sinologists as it was in the 1950s. Nowadays, a whole host of disciplines, ranging from sociologists to anthropologists to economists, are involved in studying China and this can only be seen as progress. Yet in my mind, we still harbour our engrained sense of superiority that is rarely expressed openly but is firmly rooted in our psychological make-up. Combined with fear for this rising economic superpower, we are still struggling to perceive China as it really is, and to pose that open question: What can we learn from China?

As I try to answer that question myself I must admit that I am by no means exceptional – I harbour these feelings of superiority as well. When it comes to values like the rule of law, human rights, separation of powers and the accountability of those who govern us, it seems clear to me that, in these areas, China can learn from the Western approach, not the other way round.

When it comes to specific policies, our ability to learn seems equally limited. The authoritarian-technocratic approach that is possible under the Chinese political system is very hard to transfer to our system. Forbidding petrol scooters or plastic bags with a single decree might be admired, but with the equally quick expropriation of land that is out of the question. This style of government by decree cannot be copied to our democracies. The same goes for China’s industrial policy and its much lauded investments in green technology (wind and solar). This cannot be copied, but demands a clever industrial policy by the EU in response.

Cultural collaboration

So, besides benefits in the economic sphere (its market, its products), what does China have to offer us in the realm of culture?

China has created hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the globe to promote Chinese culture and language – in Europe there are 129 institutes in 34 countries. For my book, I interviewed some directors and discovered several problems. As they are financed by the Chinese government and linked to universities, they raised concerns about academic freedom. “As an academic institution should we accept money from a foreign state with an authoritarian government?” was a debate that raged in France and the USA. The answer seems to be determined by the financial resources of the Western university: Columbia in New York and the University of Oxford decided against entering into this kind of cooperation with the Chinese state, but Paris Diderot accepted.

In an interview with the director of the above-mentioned French university, he made some very interesting remarks. He pointed out that the debate on academic freedom had waned after a few years, but academics from China and Europe are reluctant to participate as the Chinese state is financing the institutes. More importantly, he observed that the Chinese state has no clear view of what they want with these institutes: they have quantitative rather than qualitative goals. There is talk about a contribution to ‘harmony’ and ‘progress’ in the world, but these notions remain vague. And that is not surprising when you realise that the Chinese leaders, unlike the Americans, have no conception of the norms and values that China can contribute to the world. The argument that Chinese values must be of interest to the world because they are Chinese fails to impress the outside world. 

The same problem occurs with other, more substantial soft-power investments such as 24-hour news channels and English-language newspapers like the China Daily and the Global Times, which are supposed to give the ‘Chinese perspective’ on world events. In addition, these media organisations remain under the suspicion of being mouthpieces of the Chinese government. Until they follow the example of the news broadcaster Al Jazeera, which is privately funded and widely regarded as independent, they will not make an impact.  

Such investments in soft power also suffer from the negative stories about China that draw worldwide attention: widespread corruption (tackling it is the chief priority of the current leadership, which guarantees it will receive plenty of attention in the years to come), pollution (from the bad air in Beijing to 16,000 dead pigs in Shanghai’s main river), and human rights abuses.

Following the Chinese Dream?

Could the sheer economic might and success compensate for all this? Could a ‘Chinese model’ (authoritarian, but rich) become an alternative for our debt-ridden democracies? It seems unlikely to me – over the next ten years, Chinese growth is likely to slow down (due to an ageing population and the cost of environmental problems) and there is also a lack of soft power. It seems to me unlikely that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ or the ‘Chinese Dream’, as President Xi Jinping likes to put it, might one day become attractive to people outside China – in contrast with the American Dream, which is at the core of American soft power.

The best chances for Chinese soft power do not seem to reside with the Chinese government or with abstract talk about a ‘Chinese model’ – and the latter is a concept the Chinese leaders themselves are wary of. From their perspective, bragging about a ‘Beijing Consensus’ undermines the chances of reforms that are vital to their political system’s survival.

The Chinese government’s best chance of increasing its soft power is to be more trustful towards the Chinese people and its many talented individuals. At the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, a movie that depicts China frankly, showing corruption and the gap between economic winners and losers, was in the running for the Palme d’Or. In 2012, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Chinese writer Mo Yan. Chinese art and literature are becoming increasingly popular in the West. In science, the progress is also notable – in 2008 and 2009, the Nobel Prizes for Chemistry and Physics were awarded to Chinese researchers (although both worked in the USA). 

China’s best chances of increasing its soft power “lie in liberating the talents of its people within society”. That observation comes from the godfather of the soft-power notion, Harvard Professor Joseph Nye. Such a liberation would be of benefit both to China and the world at large, and it would greatly help in giving an answer to the important question: ‘What can we learn from China?’ For the moment my answer would be: the Chinese openness towards ideas from other parts of the world. That is a characteristic that is both hopeful and exemplary to us in Europe. 

*China en Europa, waar twee werelden elkaar raken [China and Europe: Where two worlds meet], Amsterdam: Atlas Contact, 2013, ISBN 978-90-470-0609-1.

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