Dare to be more realistic: Seeing China only as a rival is too short-sighted and harms German interests – By Henrik Bork

“China bashing”, i.e. shrill tones towards Beijing, had become a new popular sport in German political and media circles. In the following essay, Henrik Bork, a long-time China expert, argues for a pragmatic approach in dealing with the People’s Republic of China. For him,  seeing China only as a rival is too short-sighted and harms German interests.

How could China sink so low so quickly? Yesterday it was still really “in”, the favourite country of German politicians and managers, always mentioned in the same breath with keywords like “future” or “dynamism”. Today it is suddenly “out”, a danger to democracy and prosperity, is linked to “economic dependence” or the “competition of systems” and is supposed to be contained with a “value-based foreign policy”. There are too many extremes in this German debate on China, too much black and white, hardly any shades of grey. The pendulum of China perception has once again reached the other end of the amplitude. However, we should not be surprised, because it has always been like this.

Europeans’ image of China has been swinging back and forth between two poles like the pendulum of a cuckoo clock since the Renaissance. Louis XIV had a pavilion decorated with Chinese motifs built in the garden of Versailles for meetings with his mistress Madame de Montespan. That was around 1670. At the time, China was just the object of unqualified admiration in Europe. The German nobility imitated the Sun King by also filling their castles with “chinoiseries”. With the so-called Hun speech of the German Emperor Wilhelm II, in July 1900, we had arrived at the other end of the spectrum. For by the “Huns” our Emperor meant the Chinese, who in his opinion were a “yellow peril”. “Pardon will not be given!”, Wilhelm is said to have shouted to the officers of his expeditionary corps.

Then there is more recent history: After the Beijing massacre of 4 June 1989, when the Chinese Communist Party rolled tanks against its own people, China was internationally ostracised for a few years. On a scheduled flight from Hong Kong to Hangzhou, a few weeks after the massacre, I was the only passenger at the time. Sitting all alone in economy class, I was worried about Chinese friends who had demonstrated for democracy in Beijing. Isolating China was en vogue at the time. I thought it was wrong even then. A few years later, in November 1995, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl became the first European head of government to travel to China again and couldn’t bow low enough. It was the abrupt end of the ice age in bilateral relations.

It was not enough for Kohl to shake hands with China’s politicians, for which there were good reasons, but he demonstratively visited barracks of the People’s Liberation Army. As a journalist, I walked behind Kohl through the barracks in Tianjin, but I would rather have sunk into the ground in shame. It was not possible to kowtow any deeper.

For decades, I followed the pendulum swings of this over-wound cuckoo clock as a foreign correspondent and came to the conclusion that the extreme fluctuations in Germany’s perception of China have more to do with ourselves than with China. Demonising this country at regular intervals may be fun, but it is simply stupid. In terms of the current debate, it is extremely counterproductive to focus solely on the aspect of rivalry. That is not thinking through to the end, it falls far too short.

Henrik Bork, a graduate of the Henri Nannen School of Journalism in Hamburg, studied Sinology in Munich, Paris and Beijing and was a foreign correspondent for German media in Tokyo and Beijing for a long time, most recently as bureau chief for the Süddeutsche Zeitung for eleven years. Today he works as a freelance author and advises the CEOs of multinational corporations on their China strategy for the Beijing agency “Asia Waypoint”. In his blog, https://www.asiawaypoint.com/blog, Bork writes about his work, the thought leaders he meets and the ideas that inspire him. Photo: private

China itself has contributed a great deal to the fact that the mood in Berlin at the moment almost borders on hostility towards China. State and party leader Xi Jinping has ended his country’s economic reform course, cultivates a personality cult reminiscent of Mao, and is obsessed with fantasies of omnipotence. His “people’s war against the virus” and his zero-covide policy have failed miserably after three years of major economic losses. Beijing’s sabre-rattling against Taiwan and ongoing reprisals against ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang are also bad and rightly criticised. And yet China is simply too big to be left to its own devices, in exasperated isolation, to “indulge its fantasies, harbour its hatreds and threaten its neighbours”, as Richard Nixon put it back in 1967. This is still the case today, write the authors of the November Global China Policy Brief, published by the Brookings Institution.

Whether we like it or not, we need China to tackle all the major challenges of the present. These include climate change, the hunger of millions of people exacerbated by the Ukraine war, the fight against poverty in the global South, the protection of species and the environment, the containment of nuclear proliferation, worldwide cybersecurity and the fight against global epidemics.
“Values-based” attempts by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who wants to stand up for human rights in China above all, are well-intentioned. It is definitely a way to score political points at home. The Germans like that sort of thing. But is this policy wise if it is not accompanied by intensive cultivation of German-Chinese relations on all other issues?

China, with its huge population, is responsible for almost a third of all carbon dioxide emissions on earth, Germany for just under 2 per cent. With all due respect for German and European zeal in climate protection – these figures alone make it clear that our power to make a difference is very limited without China.
With regard to climate change alone, we need a policy that clearly and realistically places our own national interests at the top of the to-do list. More German environmental technology and more German high technology overall for China not only helps the Chinese in their justified attempt to develop their own country. It is also in our own interest. Because we can do much more to save the world’s climate by deepening our economic relations with the Chinese and sharing as much of our know-how with them as possible than with however many new bicycle lanes in our inner cities or speed limits on German motorways. Even the entire German energy transition, if it ever succeeds, pales in comparison to the importance of cooperating with China on climate protection.
This is not to say that Beijing’s critics do not have valid arguments. China is increasingly an economic rival for Germany, including the US. And one that does not always play fair. But those who see bilateral relations with China only through the lens of this rivalry fail to realise that our countries’ interests overlap in many areas, complement each other. We are united by much more than we are divided by – even now, while China is on its way out of dictatorship and into totalitarianism.

To suddenly call the hope for “change through trade” naive is wrong. Close economic ties and exchanges with China at all levels remain important. This is still the best in a basket of options where no perfect solution is ready. Just as Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik was right, regardless of all ideological differences and military fears, so today the engagement with China is right. And it does not matter whether people whose hearts beat strongly for human rights have made it into the foreign and economic ministries in Berlin.

Under no circumstances should we follow Donald Trump and Joe Biden on their misguided path of fighting China economically with boycotts of progressive semiconductors. This is understood there and in many other Asian countries as the reaction of a country that is afraid of losing the race against China in future technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), electromobility and renewable energies. Protectionism has never worked, it is an admission of weakness.

The US is shooting itself in the foot with its trade war against China. The advanced AI chips that Washington has now blacklisted for China are also needed in wind turbines and solar panels, in e-cars, energy storage and data centres. Every single chip that China doesn’t get, that delays the country’s modernisation by its absence, torpedoes the global fight against global warming. And weakening American chipmakers like Nvidia or Intel by damaging their China business will not pay off in the long run. Almost all high technology is “dual use”, i.e. it can also be used for military purposes.

But even those who argue geostrategically are better off with good relations with Beijing than with a conjured-up, unnecessary cooling.
The concern about Taiwan is justified, but it is not new. Beijing says it seeks peaceful reunification but does not rule out the use of force should Taipei move towards formal independence. Those who want to continue to exert moderating influence here need good bilateral relations. According to well-informed observers, an invasion of Taiwan is not imminent. And mind games along the lines of “what if” do not justify equating China with Russia, which has just invaded a peaceful neighbouring country.

Militarily, however, China is also growing stronger. It is almost ahead in the new space race. Technology boycotts may set it back a few years in its development, but they can no longer slow it down in the long term – neither economically nor militarily. The Chinese state is pumping billions into building up its own semiconductor industry. Beijing is still lagging several years behind the Americans and Taiwanese in the latest generation of chips in the four- or five-nanometre range. But it is only a question of when and not whether the lead can be caught up. It is illusory that Germany could allow itself fantasies of great power as in the days of Kaiser Wilhelm II and possibly punish the “evil Chinese” for their transgressions in tow of the Americans.

There is a certain irony in me arguing this. For as a China correspondent, I had earned a reputation as a fierce critic of the communist leadership in Beijing. At the end of 1995, the Chinese government revoked my press card and visa. I was suddenly unemployed and had to leave China for several years. But even then, when CNN and the terrific Ulrich Wickert interviewed me on ARD’s “Tagesthemen”, I warned against demonising China.

Of course politicians in China should address human rights, stand up for universal values. But just as naturally, BMW, VW and Co. should sell their German cars in China. The latter, by the way, is already becoming increasingly difficult without any political noise, because the Chinese have come very far with e-cars and autonomous driving themselves. How long they will need us at all is up for debate right now. Nowhere on earth are so many good and affordable electric cars being built and sold today as in China. Nowhere is as much solar and wind power being generated as here. Nowhere – except in the USA – is there as much progress in the field of biotechnology as in the People’s Republic of China. German companies must invest in China, research and develop there, if only to avoid being excluded from this ecosystem of innovations. And fortunately they are doing so.

We Germans must face up to competition with China if our own industry is to remain globally competitive. Diversifying supply chains is good, in the sense of “China + X”, but we simply cannot afford to decouple from China. We should rather use our strength to promote our own chip industry – which has just begun – than waste it on giving China a leg up.

Germany needs political backbone on human rights issues and economic strength, but under no circumstances a primacy of do-gooderism over economic pragmatism – as if Germany’s hard-earned prosperity had nothing to do with our success as an export nation.
We also want to keep China as a market. China, in turn, needs us, even if somewhat less than we need China. That’s the thing about “dependence”. It is always mutual when two countries trade.
Emotional overreactions are not appropriate, either personally or when formulating national strategies. According to media reports, a draft of the German government’s new China strategy speaks of China as our “partner, competitor and systemic rival”. True. But then, according to Spiegel, the paper goes on to say: “The last two aspects, however, are increasingly gaining weight.”

Well, they shouldn’t. We should make an effort to continue to see China as a partner as much as possible, despite all its differences and its faults. We need to explore common interests, not dig trenches. There is simply too much at stake, especially for ourselves, to leave the field to the Cold Warriors. 

Note: A German version of this text recently appeared in the magazine Cicero. We publish this version with the consent of the author. 

Translation: Markus Heidingsfelder. Proofread: Bella and Katherine. Illustrations: Wilson, applying Photoshop filter functions to a Google image search on “Dare more realism towards China”.