China and The World: The End of Realpolitik – By Ole Döring

Anyone who has been following the current reporting on the Chinese Communist Party Congress or the possible involvement of Cosco in the Port of Hamburg will have an inkling that German-Chinese relations are not in good shape. These days, China is all too quickly identified as the evil empire. In a guest article for Cicero, German sinologist Ole Döring writes of a completely different China and pleads for getting rid of the new distorted images. Tolerance, says Döring, is the space for action and restraint. And the real problem may not lie in China at all, but in Europe. is proud to present the authorized English version of Döring’s text below. You find the original text in German here.

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Somehow any nonsense can be used to confirm one’s own opinion. Because Russia attacked Ukraine and China is also in the culturally alien East, Taiwan must be removed from its path to normalisation with China. Taiwan must be “liberated” from its path to normalisation with China, it was recently said at the highest level. Language forgives and paper is patient. It makes it possible to talk about war, crime, terrorist attacks and remote-controlled coups of epic proportions without mentioning the central drivers of these affair’s business model by name. You can say that China is communist, but all you understand is “East Germany” or “Stalin” – in other words, nothing. Now what if, for once, our words, our thinking and our prejudices really can’t forgive patience? For a while one might hope that the good spirit of the politics of understanding behind the scenes and within the framework of the United Nations would work on peace diplomacy appreciating the Chinese position.

Instead of quiet diplomacy, however, we marvel at the noisy abolition of realpolitik in the name of exclusive value postulates. Can we, indeed, can we want to alienate China as a strong and important partner? Just because we do not dare to look at the Phoenix and withstand its gaze, which has grown from ashes to normal size after two centuries? Perhaps we also do not have the courage to take the step out of familiar patterns of thought into the light of a new reality. The world is so round today that it can make one truly dizzy. Actually, Germany is constitutionally better prepared for the necessary changes than any other country in the world. Or it would be.

Russia is as European in geostrategic questions as perhaps the USA are. We know each other. But we don’t know China. So let’s slow down for a moment and switch over to the counter-perspective: What is China, how does China see itself in the world? China is on its way to becoming a guarantor of non-interference and peace. It does not wage hegemonic wars and adopts the basic ideas of the UN of its own accord – at least as long as no one sabotages it. If one supports China’s positive development, it is the only country in the world that has the potential – both culturally and in terms of weight – to lift the forces of the future over the critical threshold of the upcoming reordering of the world. Quite obviously, China is also showing the political will to pursue this strategy in the long term. This is precisely what some seem to fear: Would that be too good to be true? Or will it only spoil their own business model in the end?

Ole Döring is a German philosopher, sinologist and writer. He is internationally known for his contributions to cultural and philosophical questions of medicine and bioethics. In Germany, he advocates for the recognition of Chinese philosophy as a regular university subject and is a thought leader on global health ethics. He offers seminars on the history, structure and specificity of the Chinese mind from philosophical and practical expertise, aimed in particular at leading decision-makers. As a full professor at Hunan Normal University, living in China, he teaches the Philosophy of Hermeneutics, Pedagogy and the Comparative History of Ideas.  In March 2019, his political-philosophical essay “The Luther Gene” was published, in which he proposes to develop a basis for enlightened social systems through the practical philosophies of Kant and Confucius, anticipating the now apparent system crises of German democracy. In addition to research, teaching and lecturing activities, Döring writes regularly in public forums and newspapers on topics of the day. Photo: private

The door for understanding is open

China’s position is sometimes described as ambiguous. This is an excuse for sloppy thinking and disinterest in reality, insofar as it does not describe political triviality. One has to very actively plug one’s ears, or forgo knowledge of Chinese sources, to miss the ubiquitous, ever-repeated and identical message: No sanctions and no military support! This is a basic political recipe for peacemaking. China sees itself vindicated by the spiritual and material dislocations of the whole of Europe. China is keeping the door open for diplomacy, détente and understanding. Instead of uncontrollably disrupting value creation through green table sanctions, thus widening the gap between the powerful and the powerless in all countries involved, including those of the supposedly punishing, while setting economic disincentives in favour of destruction capital. Why? Because it is the only proven strategy that can work, because it insists on the United Nations’ image of humanity: the will to reason and cooperation of all peoples, nations and people. Ironically, this attitude is proving profitable even under the current undesirable conditions.

After the USA, China is the biggest beneficiary of the current war policy, but without seeking this advantage. For without the war, China would also be better off. Europe loses the most. China’s weakness lies in combining its claim to proceed “objectively and fairly” with a half-baked strategy of communicative learning. It is not always enough to make subtle gestures, such as delicately omitting expressions of brotherhood towards Russia.

Between distinguished restraint and ostentatious shouting, a variety of nuances and shades are on offer that always demand a trusting, critical dialogue – which has been part of the repertoire of  the repertoire of German politics since Egon Bahr and Willy Brandt. Respectful, knowledgeable and pragmatic negotiation about common interests could work wonders. Such exchanges also reveal the limits of the respective approach and can be corrected without loss of face. China has not sabotaged any such dispute to date, even if awkwardness or signals to avoid each other in certain circumstances can be so misinterpreted.

International law does not rely on the Wagenburg mentality

A few highlights show how a despised China, left to its own devices, is trying to live up to its global responsibility. Not even in Central Asia, the notorious powder keg on its own doorstep, is China considering military options; instead, it is consistently relying on treaty diplomacy and economics. Meanwhile, Turkey, a NATO country, openly professes its goal of being accepted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). It is diversifying specific contacts at the nation-state level. This irritates some in the EU who suspect destabilising intentions. Of course, it is not hostile, if only out of self-interest, but corresponds to the logic of international law. This suggests quite different reactions than defence and a wagon train mentality. Europe could see the challenge as an opportunity and develop its own strength through the salutary China stress test. A “win-win-win” perspective would be conceivable in which Europe, through better cooperation with China both at the EU level and between nation states, could independently and resiliently assume its future as a global instance of responsibility and jointly shape a multilateral world order with China and the global South.

However, this would require a self-confident position of real strength, not whistling or shrieking in the woods. Unfortunately, such obvious considerations are hardly ever discussed, even though an open-ended debate based on expertise could already bring about a positive momentum, starting with the development of an appropriate China competence. Those who turned down the invitation to the Belt and Road Initiative at the outset must now accept being criticised for having themselves contributed to the weakening of Europe, because its stabilisation potentials were not even to be tested.

China is learning slowly and thoroughly. It is increasingly sensitive to being defamed as a haven of evil because it is pursuing its own course of development and not chasing the dreams of a unilateral model. With regard to Russia in Ukraine, one can state, “This war is not at all in the interest of the Chinese” and at the same time note contradictions of a “seesaw policy”. This does not make China a villain or totalitarian, as the transatlantic narrative, of all things, washes mantra-like into the brains of the public. Rather, there is anger at the failure of the Russian leadership to put its own sphere of competence in order in order to have strength for the higher goals. These are understood in a historical context and require a correspondingly long breath. Exerting massive pressure on Russia is out of the question in view of China’s own maxim of non-interference. The EU cannot realistically demand this, but would do well to take a constructive approach to China’s offers, even or especially if they are marked by cunning and steadfastness. The Belt and Road Initiative was designed to be open, with room for manoeuvre for intelligent players. Why has the initiative not been launched long ago to establish an EU-China Cooperation Council? Where are the plans for a German-Chinese Youth Office?

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The end of monopolism

Not without disappointment at the lack of any response, especially from the favoured partner Germany, China is pursuing its agenda. In doing so, it accepts that, for the time being, the overall strategic development will be at the expense of tactical setbacks. The fact that China’s position is in the majority of the community of nations is noticed even by American media. Newsweek warns, “In what is generally known as the ‘Global South’, China is now more popular than the United States”, pointing to a global emancipation from system monopolism long underway at all levels of infrastructures, soft power and institutional alignment, towards the UN’s organising principles.

Here one may wonder, but how can this be done? One can prepare oneself for a conversation with a stranger. It helps to ask: Why do they do it this way and not differently? Despite the Party’s dynastic rule, China is doing very well compared to the situation 50 years ago. Thinking “because” in place of “despite” seems to be a taboo – but taboos are indications of special attention owed. The Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization has just published the “Global Innovation Index 2022”. In this ranking, China moves up to 11th place, overtaking France as the only middle-income economy. Above all, this expresses a real increase in key economic skills. How can this be?

China’s foreign and domestic policies increasingly express China’s own cultural sensitivities. What is visible externally in the example of Ukraine has an internal resonance. After a few decades of peacefully growing prosperity, life is not determined by a short-tempered look at stock market values or cheeky twittering, but rather by a broad view of time and space, which is heightened by the narrowness and hectic pace of life. Those who manage in everyday life, contentedly and with dignity, in the hustle and bustle of a population of billions, find their own rhythm of life, know something about the time they can carve out for themselves between the friction with everyone else. What one sees from the outside is speed and order. What you have to learn to see is the time on which that is based. That flows from an attitude trained early on to take distance on the inside in order to remain true to oneself. When the world around one does not give one peace, healthy development requires one to set up one’s inner life and connect it with the measure of reliability that is dependable. In this way, friendship gains a higher value than institutional duties. Here, those who can take themselves out of the flow survive. This is how an entrepreneurial approach emerges. Everyone has to cope with the imposition of bearing responsibility for their own fate. Thus begins an approach of social reason.

The opposite of confrontation

The groping caution encountered at all levels of society and through which relationships are negotiated cultivates a virtue we once knew as tolerance: Tolerance, allowing or putting up with something without giving up eye contact. On the inside, risk avoidance determines the attitude. Thus, a broad spectrum is measured out, ranging from active risk management of preventive protection and opportunism with retreat into the private sphere – to celebrate one’s own gains in progress, to the apathy of idiomatic “lying flat” or “bumming around” of the discouraged. Externally, this spectrum of active forbearance manifests itself as non-interference, ideally in the classical Confucian-Daoist virtue of wuwei (non-interference).

What all these levels and varieties of tolerance have in common is being the opposite of an attitude of confrontation. It takes a great deal of frustration before anger makes itself felt on the outside. But then there is hardly any approach to measure and aim.

The desired ideal of harmony is historically deep and bitterly probed, those in power know and fear the moment when the currents of the people rock the boat of rule. The interest in peace does not require any philanthropy or sentimentality. It is due above all to the economic insight that good housekeeping consists in treating everything of value with care and using it with care. It is therefore absurd to torture or kill the cow as long as you can milk it and it does not hurt you.

You drive on sight, avoid strong signals and integrate yourself – not out of a desire for harmony but in order to wait for the opportunities that allow you to seize them decisively. “Keeping one’s light under a bushel” helps to use one’s own capital correctly. The effects of precisely this basic cultural pattern were unleashed by Deng Xiaoping when he announced in 1978 that until further notice it was all right to get rich and no matter what colour the skilful predator wore. It was always taken for granted that this announcement served a temporary purpose, could be corrected at any time and would subsequently be replaced by a far-sighted policy. For the state of perpetual exception, crisis and profit maximisation is as repugnant to historical knowledge as it is to social reason.

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China’s Monroe Doctrine

This culture thrives on navigating grey areas and in-between tones, not because it would be particularly cosy to waft in the vagueness, but out of interest in the right opportunity. Melancholy, on the other hand, has its place, as with Heine, in poetry. The political side is crystal-clear calculation. It is wise not to force opportunity but to use it as it arises. One invites Fortuna by keeping the doors open and a friendly welcome ready, not by imposing language or quotas.

China has never fought a war outside its immediate territorial range. Its Monroe Doctrine is millennia older and more subtle than the one we are familiar with under that name. China defends its interests even in the Hindu Kush, but consistently with diplomatic and economic action. Bombs, contract killings and coups damage trust, infrastructure and the value-creating resilience of any society; they destroy resources instead of managing their use wisely for value creation.

China is culturally very well attuned to being tolerant, especially internationally. Wikipedia explains tolerance as “a granting and allowing of other or foreign beliefs, ways of doing things, and customs.” Being tolerant, forgiving and broad-minded unites peoples just as much as humour. When the NZZ reported on 4 October that “Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock currently sees no chance for negotiations on an end to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine”, there is no trace of any of this, because not even good will is mentioned. Humour arises in the attempt to think difference in a surprisingly new way. It is a tried and tested means to shake things up, to create opportunity and to release one’s own tensions. But this is only possible if you are confident enough to understand and want it. Letting go is an active act of will, not a larmoyant ducking away.

War is war

The fear of a new friend in the East, who is suddenly no longer exotic, comes across as narrow-minded and petty. That this defensive attitude is a problem that exists even without China, but is expressed in a particularly shrill way towards China. Language is the first space of responsibility. To speak of “war” needs no intensification or emphasis, no “brutal attack” or “criminal destruction” addendum. War is war, the unspeakable of human meanness. Those who need more words simply lack knowledge. Here, too, economy is an imperative, in which the real value of economy in language is revealed. The German media do not pay attention, they join in. In China, the state-supporting press, in accordance with its mandate, adheres to the commandment to distinguish reports from opinions and to report as factually as possible; agitation and defamation are used according to plan; the subject of war is particularly sensitive.

Any linguistic relativisation of war or the Holocaust is an act of brutalisation. The frivolous amalgam of trivialising the horror and mocking the victims only keeps the evil at bay. This is also felt in China, where existential horror is presented less explicitly than subtly. People also tend to hold back on the search for “culprits”, because it is assumed that the American power would have been able to avert this war as well if it had been honestly concerned about it. Above all, there are historians and international judges who are supposed to take care of this under regular circumstance. Politics is charged with learning, not bickering.

Society must get used to the fact that simple truths have their price in our risky global society, the louder the more suspicious. China takes this into account with its greyscale modulation. The difference between crisis, which can be terrible enough, and war leaves mental space open until the last moment to be used for peace. Tolerance is the negotiable space for action and restraint that emerges when attitude and language stay alive through humour.

China’s strategy for a new world order does not want war. While it demands to be prepared for aggression, it in turn targets people’s minds through their bellies and hearts. China has not given up the struggle for the sovereignty of interpretation of what a good democracy is, but has just revived it. Since no one else seems to dare to lead the ongoing struggle to shape democracy, China is taking it up in a planned way and with some effort. The reaction to the American intellectual vested-interest campaign of the “democracy summit” in December, which wanted nothing at all to do with China, was almost stoic: then we’ll just do it ourselves. The German public learns nothing of this, under the filter that says, “I don’t believe it – it can’t be”. Seen from China, Germany currently appears to the German as a foreign planet, once populated by an advanced civilisation and suddenly abandoned by all good spirits, with decaying infrastructures and spiritually desolate. All the best for the new beginning!