‘Het succes van de AIIB is van historisch belang en brengt verdeeldheid tussen de VS en grote Europese landen. De VS heeft Azië alleen nog militaire macht te bieden, maar uiteindelijk is economische macht sterker’.
‘De verhouding tussen staat en maatschappij is in China anders dan bij ons. Prestaties geven de overheid populariteit en prestige. De maatschappij verandert snel en dat dwingt het systeem tot een ingrijpende modernisering.’

Prikkelende uitspraken over opkomst en duurzaamheid van het huidige China, door Martin Jacques.
Er lopen onder China-kenners op het moment twee discussies, waarvan de echo’s op ChinaSquare te vinden zijn. Een gaat over de opkomst van China, de andere over de duurzaamheid van het Chinese systeem. De bekende publicist Martin Jacques heeft op beide thema’s een uitgesproken visie. Niet iedereen zal het met hem eens zijn, maar weinigen zullen niet worden geïnspireerd of uitgedaagd door wat hij schrijft. Chinese media staan open voor zijn inbreng. We geven hieronder een samenvatting met citaten van zijn recente artikelen in Global Times(zie foto) en People’s Daily. Twee originele teksten, over opkomst en duurzaamheid van China nu, staan op zijn officiële persoonlijke website

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Britain must stop lecturing China over human rights and start learning about Chinese culture or risk being marginalised in the new world order, a leading authority on China has warned.

Speaking at an event in Yorkshire, the author and academic Martin Jacques questioned whether the declining West could “grasp the future” and engage with China, which earlier this year overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy in purchasing power parity.

The shift in global power will have a profound political, intellectual, cultural and moral impact on international affairs, added Mr Jacques.

Mr Jacques said: “Britain is still caught in an obsolescent mindset, where we are still living in a world we are accustomed to rather than a world that is coming into existence.

“This requires a dramatic change in the way in which we think of ourselves and we think of the rest of the world and our place in the world.

“The arguments over Britain’s relationship with the European Union are a sideshow because that’s arguing over the placement of the furniture, it is not arguing about the shape of the house.

“The shape of the house is going to change very profoundly.”

The author of best-selling book When China Rules The World was speaking at an event to commemorate the 10th anniversary of a partnership between Leeds Metropolitan University and the College of Management at Zhejiang University of Technology, Hangzhou, China.

He explained to an audience of Yorkshire business leaders and academics how China, a nation of 1.3bn people, has been through a process of radical transformation since launching a programme of reforms in 1978.

China’s economy has grown at a rate of 10 per cent a year and by 2030 is forecast to be twice the size of the US economy and greater than the US and European economies put together, according to Mr Jacques.

He said Chinese people are very optimistic about their future prosperity, compared to those in the West who are displaying levels of pessimism not seen since the 1930s.

But as China becomes the dominant global player it is a mistake to think it will become more Western, argued Mr Jacques.

“This is own hubris, this is our own arrogance. China is different,” he said.

Instead, the West must work to understand China and its history and culture, he added.

Mr Jacques described China as a “civilisation state” with more than 2,000 years of history, which places great importance on unity, stability and order.

In contrast, the default mode of Europe is fragmentation into lots of nation states, he said. And just because past empires of the West were aggressive and expansionist, it does not follow that China will be the same; Mr Jacques said China has a “stay at home” sense of universalism. He added: “Their attitude is ‘we are the most developed part of the world, our culture and our civilisation is superior to all others so why would we want to step outside China into darkened shades of barbarity?’”

China will seek to exercise its power and influence, but through economic and cultural means rather military or political, he added. As a consequence, for Westerners the world will become increasingly less familiar.

“We have been very privileged. The furniture of the world has been our furniture, our creation. That’s not going to continue in the future,” he warned.

“The question is, can we adapt to this? This is going to be an enormous historical shock.”

In response, Britons should learn Mandarin and political leaders should stop lecturing their Chinese counterparts over human rights and learn about Chinese culture.

– Bernard Ginns

A LEADING authority on the rise of China will explain how he thinks the world will change in response to the new global superpower.

Martin Jacques, the author, broadcaster and speaker, is visiting Yorkshire next month to deliver a lecture at Leeds Metropolitan University.

The institution is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its partnership with the College of Management at Zhejiang University of Technology in Hangzhou, China, with a series of guest lectures.

Mr Jacques is the author of the global bestseller ‘When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order’.

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Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor, University of Reading, says: “Having recently visited the country, I read Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order [Penguin, 2009]. He defies the conventional wisdom that China is on an inexorable path to ‘Westernisation’. Rather, the Middle Kingdom, with its enduring language, culture and values, will plot an alternative route to modernisation. As Jacques puts it, the ‘gravitational pull’ of China will have a profound impact on the West, and not the other way round.”

China Goes Global: the Partial Power

By David Shambaugh.

Oxford University Press. $29.95.

The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy

By Edward N. Luttwak.

Belknap Press. $26.95.

Stumbling Giant: the Threats to China’s Future

By Timothy Beardson.

Yale University Press. $35.

It is open season on China and not from the usual suspects, often dismissed (especially in Beijing) as “China-bashers,” human rights obsessives, anti-Communists or Chinese dissidents living abroad. Three books have appeared in recent months that each paint the Chinese state as straining under pressure, both internal and external, even as it continues its remarkable economic growth. Unlike China’s more familiar critics, none of these authors has been denied a Chinese visa, the occasional lot of a few dissenters from the media or academia. David Shambaugh is a well-known academic China specialist with broad contacts in China, Edward Luttwak is a self-styled “strategist” (China is just one of the subjects on which he has written widely) and Timothy Beardson is the founder of an investment bank based in the Far East.

What we learn from these three books is that it has become respectable, without being labeled a China-basher, to worry less about a China that challenges the United States-dominated international system than a China that even its new leaders admit is facing profound problems from corruption to the destruction of the environment. It is becoming rare, therefore, for well-qualified scholars to argue that the rest of the world has little choice but to step out of the way of the Chinese juggernaut. The most well-known proponent of that admiring attitude is Martin Jacques, whose best-selling 2009 book “When China Rules the World,” is dismissed by Shambaugh and Luttwak. There are now Chinese people who are educated in the West, or who turn to the Internet to debate what China really is and where it is heading, who no longer believe everything the government tells them. Even China’s new leaders worry about this; if corruption reaches into the highest levels of government, as they admit and as the public cries out, and if environmental destruction is as out of control as many say, China is in no state to lead the world.

Shambaugh’s latest book will surprise his fellow China-watchers. For years they have regarded him as a respected academic _ he is a professor at George Washington University _ who, in his many publications, explained China rather than judging it. In Beijing, where Shambaugh has been welcomed as a “foreign friend,” “China Goes Global: the Partial Power” will amaze, if not anger.

Shambaugh argues that Jacques’ thesis that China will soon be the world’s pre-eminent superpower is “profoundly overstated and incorrect” (although he thanks it in his acknowledgments). Shambaugh takes a wholly opposite position: “The elements of China’s global power are actually surprisingly weak and very uneven. China is not as important, and is certainly not as influential, as conventional wisdom holds.” This may wound egos in China. What will hurt some feelings deeply are Shambaugh’s judgments on the country to which he has devoted his professional life. “A society composed of self-seeking, power-maximizing individuals,” he writes, “who are dismissive of domestic social responsibilities and public goods are certainly in no position to embrace arguments concerning international responsibilities and public goods.” In case this is construed as meaning only individual Chinese people, Shambaugh hammers the Chinese state as an “ insecure, confused, frustrated, angry, dissatisfied, selfish, truculent and lonely power.”

Although Shambaugh initially dismisses (I think unworthily) most of his fellow scholars as encumbered by an “increasing obsession with social science theories and methodologies,” he thanks a veritable army of “valued colleagues” in his acknowledgments, and later defends their scholarship as “quite accurate and highly detailed” against Chinese criticism that they are biased. This contrasts with his opinion of Chinese academics. Shambaugh notes that while China now outstrips the U.S. in the number of Ph.D.s awarded, its basic research is poor. Thousands of Chinese students do doctoral research on difficult subjects in the U.S., Britain and other Western countries. A significant minority do not return to China.

Here the main culprit, he contends, is the Communist Party, which “continues to place various restrictions on free thought and inquiry, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. …” But the party alone is not to blame. He continues: “Academic plagiarism, favoritism and false credentials are rampant, and intellectual property rights theft is endemic.” As for Nobel Prizes, for which Beijing longs, Shambaugh notes that until Mo Yan won the prize for literature in 2012, no Chinese person living in China had won, except for the imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo. “The Nobel deficit,” he writes, “is directly traceable to China’s political system, which stifles creativity.”

Shambaugh scrutinizes China’s “global footprints” in diplomacy, economics, culture, global governance and security. He observes that China’s present and traditional “preference has always been for a regional hierarchy of asymmetrical interstate relations centered on itself.” These traditional features of Chinese foreign policy “continue to resonate today. They may not be readily apparent at all times, but they certainly exist in Chinese minds, experience and practices.”

Shambaugh notices that “Chinese diplomats and media go to extraordinary lengths to stage-manage its leaders’ and officials’ foreign interactions. They make great efforts to try to maximize the formality and grandeur in which foreign leaders are received abroad and minimize (to zero) the possibility of their being embarrassed by public protests in their presence or openly aired disputes with foreign leaders. Why? Because the controlled visual images are broadcast back into China by state media and are intended for one purpose only: to give the impression that China’s leaders are being received with respect and deference.” (There is also the nasty side of Chinese diplomacy; in late 2010 Beijing urged foreign ambassadors in Oslo, Norway, to shun the ceremony awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu _ 17 complied.)

Shambaugh also notices how then-President Hu Jintao received foreign statesmen, standing on their left, “right hand and arm outstretched, while the foreigner is forced into the less comfortable stance with the right hand awkwardly crossing the body. As a result, the Chinese leader always appears relaxed, whereas the foreigner often seems physically uncomfortable.”

But all that is theater. Shambaugh contends that the China he knows well is a “lonely power, lacking close friends and possessing no allies.” Moreover, it “often makes known what it is against, but rarely what it is for.” Where China speaks loud and clear is on its own narrow self-interests: “Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, human rights and its maritime territorial claims.”

In a little list, concluded with irony, Shambaugh points to China’s influence beyond its borders: “global trade arrangements, global trade patterns, global energy … the global tourism industry, global sales of luxury goods, global real estate purchases and cyberhacking.” I write that again: cyberhacking. This is now so widespread that American officials, even in the White House and intelligence services who normally avoid publicly criticizing China, condemn it.

During the celebrations in Beijing on China’s National Day, Oct. 1, 2009, Shambaugh watched the enormous military parade (complete with “10,000 goose-stepping soldiers” and “massive trucks ferrying huge intercontinental ballistic missiles”). Security was extremely tight and on the day of the parade the whole of Beijing went into lockdown. He wondered: “If the Communist Party is so proud of its achievements and 60 years in power, what is it so afraid of? The juxtaposition of pride and patriotism on the one hand, mixed together with the party’s deep insecurities and the obsession with control, on the other, spoke volumes to me about China’s current conflicted (and insecure) condition.” Because of Shambaugh’s profoundly informed book they also speak volumes to us.

Luttwak says he is a military strategist and not a “Sinologist.” Now very rare, Sinologists are specialized beings essentially concerned with traditional Chinese texts. What Luttwak means of course is that he is not like Shambaugh: trained in reading Chinese but also in applying social science and humanist studies to deepen our understanding of China. Instead, Luttwak, in his new book “The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy,” aims to explain how Beijing thinks and acts, supplying readers with a beginner’s guide to Chinese history. This includes what modern Western scholarship has to say about how today’s Chinese people misunderstand their remote history, and how they apply this misunderstanding to their current international strategies.

Unlike Shambaugh _ who sees China today as unhappy and lonely, internationally active but not influential, with narrow interests, a country to be coaxed into becoming a normal part of the international scene _ Luttwak views China, and many Chinese citizens, as gripped by imagined past greatness and thus convinced of their superior ways of dealing with today’s global scene. Luttwak dismisses the “when China rules the world” predictions of Jacques, and the more involved assumptions and miscalculations of former U.S. secretary of state and influential China-watcher, Henry Kissinger. (Kissinger almost always speaks positively about China today, and rarely notes that his firm, Kissinger Associates, does business there.)

The fundamental difference between Shambaugh’s view of China on the international stage and Luttwak’s is that the latter believes “the essential problem is not China’s conduct but its all-around magnitude.”

Luttwak profoundly notes that China’s leaders, who conceive of the U.S. as a nation of cultural innocents, “cannot absorb in-depth information with all its complexities and subtleties. … Decisions on foreign affairs are almost always made on the basis of highly simplified, schematic representations of unmanageably complex realities, which are thereby distorted to fit within internally generated categories, expectations and perspectives.”

Luttwak is right to assert that China’s leaders are so thrown off stride by their damaging internal unrealities that they cannot think sensibly about foreign affairs. There are too many distractions. As he says, “somewhere in China there is an emergency under way important enough to engage the top leaders, be it an earthquake, a major flood, ethnic rioting, an abrupt economic shift such as a sudden upsurge in food prices, or an actual or imagined internal political threat.” How true this last clause is: While the new leaders were preparing to sit down in the chairs of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, they were busy charging Bo Xilai, a nationally popular regional leader, his wife and a senior police chief with having poisoned to death the British businessman Neil Heywood.

But what really gets in the way of China’s leaders, says Luttwak, is their view of an ancient Sino-centric world in which China received “tribute” from far and wide and gave more valuable presents in return. Here, too, his criticism is correct, the persistent notion being that ancient “barbarian handling” is the way to manage foreigners. This was true 1,500 years ago, and still means corrupting “barbarians, non-Hans, with expensive presents, followed by indoctrination to get them to assume Han, that is ethnic Chinese, values.” So, writes Luttwak scornfully, every foreign “poo-bah … from the likes of countries like Kiribati, Vanuatu, Uruguay, Latvia, Burundi and other such” is accorded “an abundance of ceremony and elaborately hosted meals.”

Linked to this hierarchical worldview (also mentioned briefly by Shambaugh) is the truly incorrect self-image of 2,000 years of Chinese national and cultural unity. As Luttwak says, for the last 1,000 years (actually more than that) China has been either disunited or conquered by “unwashed” non-Hans, like the Khitan, Mongols and Manchus. It was the Manchus who established the present limits of China’s borders from 1644 onward, and whose basic characteristics were wholly un-Chinese. (In his next edition, Luttwak should include citations to the American scholars, chiefly Pamela Crossley and Evelyn Rawski, who established these mind-changing facts.)

So what should we do about a regime that prides itself on a mythical past, on the continuing assumption that all other countries are its cultural inferiors? The question is particularly acute, Luttwak states, because much of China’s aggressive ideology is also based on resentment of its past colonial exploitation, on a bellicose army and on fantasies of maritime dominance far beyond its shores. Shambaugh opposes containment as “absurd” and a “nonstarter.” Luttwak suggests that, while avoiding nuclear war, “U.S. military strength would still be necessary to contain China’s, but it alone could not preserve the ability of the United States to pursue containment in the future as well.” He underlines how the U.S. Treasury, led by Timothy Geithner, cowers before China, in contrast with the more defiant policies of the Department of State; true enough on both counts, except that the latter also avoids any challenges to how China treats its ethnic minorities, especially in Tibet.

Luttwak, rightly again, foresees the possibility of China’s economic decline. This is already on the cards; the one-child policy has resulted in a steep decline in young workers for the factories producing goods for export, and an increasing reliance on tens of millions of floating people with no legal or social rights as they move about the country.

Nor is Luttwak confident that the Communist Party will endure. He sees many destabilizing factors, including the widening gap between rich and poor, riots against local and central authorities, ethnic unrest, bankrupt ideas as capitalism challenges socialist ideals, and the disaffection of the better educated “who aspire to the freedoms of their global peers.” The regime, he believes, cannot go on banning what it sees as subversive literature. Here one must be touched by Luttwak’s faith in the intellectual subversion of “the ultimately more deeply subversive novels of Conrad, Dickens or (this is very learned) Manzoni to name but a few … whose impact is less immediate but certainly more profound than tweets, or miniblogs.” Tell that to the tweeters and bloggers here in London.

While much of Luttwak’s book is persuasive, his writing is sometimes marred by too many ironies and occasional offensive phrases like referring to China’s “great state autism,” to its Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying as an “assimilated Mongol of some elegance,” to the many Third World statesmen who visit China as insignificant, almost culturally inferior, and to China’s traditional neighbors as “unwashed.”

In the conclusion to this thought-provoking book, Luttwak contends that a “fully democratic China could advance unimpeded to global hegemony, but then the government of a fully democratic China would undoubtedly seek to pursue quite other aims, to maximize the happiness of the population rather than its own power.” Luttwak is a mere 70. May he see that day.

Beardson is the founder of what the jacket of his new book calls “the largest investment bank in the Far East.” Like Shambaugh and Luttwak, Beardson believes that the Chinese will neither displace nor challenge the U.S. as the world’s superpower. In most books, descriptions of threats to a country’s future see them, at least in part, as coming from outside. But in “Stumbling Giant: the Threats to China’s Future,” we read that, “many of the themes in this book return to a deficiency in the moral core of today’s China. … What is clear is that dozens of perceptive Chinese _ as well as foreign _ observers have noted a lack of honesty, integrity and morality in contemporary society.” The country’s leaders, says Beardson _ who, like Luttwak, uses the word “autistic” to describe them _ imagine that solving its main problems will take centuries. Beardson gives them a few decades.

Here is what he says near the end of his survey of the Chinese scene today: “If we consider the environmental degradation, the industrial manufacture of counterfeit goods, the return of extreme markets (where anything can be bought), the cyber hostility and the careful avoidance of historical truth, we must wonder whether China is building a society devoid of culture or moral standards. Is China the country that goes too far?”

Take environmental disaster. Beardson devotes one of his detailed and usually persuasive chapters to this, and near its beginning says flatly, “China has the worst environment of any country.” Indeed, China’s citizens put pollution very high as a national problem, though not as high as corruption. So while the issue of environmental degradation is basically centuries old and 300 million Chinese people were drinking polluted water in 2012, the authorities have tended to react by denying or obfuscating the problems. “Throughout the reform period, China’s reaction to criticism of its environmental degradation has been that its top priority is to deliver a rapidly rising standard of living.” If this problem is not solved, writes Beardson, “it could be the environment, rather than the economy, which topples the party.”

What about the ethnic problems, primarily the Muslims of Xinjiang and the Tibetans that plague the government and bring China into international disrepute? Admitting that this is “thinking the unthinkable,” Beardson proposes that “perhaps China would be … stronger and more stable if it unilaterally dropped Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang (or parts of them) and possibly parts of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan. … Huge security spending (in these areas) is a massive burden, preventing other more congenial options.” He does not consider Tibet a major problem for China because there is little likelihood of an armed struggle there assisted from abroad, as might happen in Muslim Xinjiang, which lies on the border with Afghanistan.

Beardson, I suspect, is a frequent visitor to China where this book, like those of Shambaugh and Luttwak, may shock and wound. Beardson’s list of flaws is so long that I choose this damning conclusion, quoting Oxford’s Karl Gerth, as a representation: “Imagine what it’s like to be a consumer in China, where the authenticity and quality of everything in your life is suspect: the food you eat, the water you drink, the pills you put in your body, the building you live in, the computer you use, the airplane you fly in.”

Like Shambaugh and Luttwak, Beardson tackles the Chinese self-delusion about a lengthy national and cultural unity. He lays out the number of centuries that China was conquered by non-Hans and interestingly, but not convincingly to me, asserts that China’s present sense of national humiliation predates by far the colonial exploitation of the 19th century. I doubt this; not many Chinese citizens these days know how non-Han territorial conquest has affected them today. Here, as in Luttwak’s book, it would have been good to see in Beardson’s inadequate bibliography _ publishers are not mentioned _ the names Pamela Crossley and Evelyn Rawski, who showed this in detail, just as it would be useful if Beardson had listed _ and read _ Roderick MacFarquhar’s volumes on the Cultural Revolution, which would have made clear his muddy account of those years.

I wish that Beardson didn’t feel it necessary to observe occasionally that black moments in China can be replicated in other countries. His account of Tiananmen Square in 1989 is accurate enough, but why point out that in 1970 U.S. National Guard troops shot dead four demonstrating students at Kent State University in Ohio? That event, contrary to Beardson’s assertion, does not raise the same questions that attend Tiananmen Square, which was part of a national crackdown and is still blanked out on official Chinese websites. As he says, most Chinese students were born after 1989 and the question is: What have they not been told about it? Indeed. Chinese students in the U.K. often say that Tiananmen was “a riot when people shot down our soldiers and police.”

Even with its defects, if “Stumbling Giant” is allowed into China, readers there will be astounded. The same holds true for Luttwak’s analysis. But when Shambaugh’s book makes its way across the border, or his most damaging judgments appear on the Internet _ both of these are a certainty _ the impact will be even greater. Reading Shambaugh’s damning assessments, many Chinese who worry about their country and its future will experience the possibly beneficial shock that attends the truth.

— Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist and historian of China. He is the former East Asia editor of The Times

China is dangerous, a threat to our prosperity and our values – to journalists, it is tempting to report on this new world power from that angle. It is simple and often irresistible to play into our visceral fear of the “Yellow Peril” in its new guise as an economic powerhouse. Because then you will have a “story.” The price of that story is a distorted view of China.

I felt that temptation myself when, in late 2011, I wanted to do an article for the De Volkskrant newspaper about the Chinese buying up the vineyards in France’s Bordeaux region. Reports in American and British papers had alerted me to the story, and to convince De Volkskrant of its importance I said to my superiors, “The Chinese in Bordeaux! The world famous wineries, the very industry that defines France in Chinese hands – what a mortal affront to the French soul! Is that a story or what?” I must have sounded convincing enough, because they told me I could make the trip.

Once I arrived, the reality turned out to be quite different. The winemakers were not at all alarmed by these Chinese investments. They had been used to investors for a long time— the British, the Dutch, the Japanese and the Americans had already settled in, so what harm could a couple of Chinese do? Out of a total of over 11,000 châteaux, the Chinese had purchased no more than six relatively obscure vineyards. In other words, this was a very tiny wine stain on a vast white tablecloth.

I wrote down these sobering figures. One grouchy farmer complained that all of the expertise would go to China, but I also quoted two experts who explained that this was definitely not the case. I ended up writing a balanced and rather positive account about the Chinese involvement in French winemaking, not least because the huge Chinese appetite for claret compensated for diminishing European demand. I had, however, forgotten about De Volkskrant‘s editor: Winemaking Savoir-Faire Goes to China, the headline said. That grouchy farmer was the cue; otherwise there would have been no “story.”

Since my trip to the Bordeaux region, I have often seen the subject come up elsewhere and each time the import of the story is: “The Chinese Are Coming.” The urge to warn viewers and readers of Yellow Peril 2.0 is very alluring. My colleagues at another Dutch daily paper, the NRC Handelsblad, fell into the same pitfall. “The Chinese are popping up everywhere in the Port of Rotterdam,” they reported. To make the danger even more imminent, a second headline warned: “China Gets Grip on Rotterdam Port.” On closer inspection, this was a gross exaggeration. There is indeed an increase of Chinese activity, but the Russians, Americans, Arabs and Europeans still have a large presence there too. Although their story did contain some nuances, the overall tone was that the Port of Rotterdam, part of our national pride, is in danger of falling into Asian hands. Nonsense.

When Western journalists discuss China’s role in Africa, they lose sight of nuance even more. The fear of a Chinese economic takeover is heightened by a general dislike of their values. Chinese supervisors bleeding their African laborers dry, disgraceful working conditions – the accusation of “neocolonialism” is never far off. Two books by serious European journalists read like one long indictment. The Spanish co-authors Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo – whose research into China’s impact in 25 developing countries is a journalistic tour de force – warn about La silenciosa conquista China (China’s Silent Conquest) that will lead to “a new world order dictated by Beijing.” Two French journalists, Philippe Cohen and Luc Richard, sing a similar tune with their Le Vampire du Milieu, a pun on “Empire du Milieu” or “Middle Empire,” as China is sometimes referred to. The pun itself reveals a lot about their stance: “How China imposes its laws on us” is their angle. Both pairs of journalists manipulate the facts in order to shore up their arguments, which are based on fear. What they do not mention is that the Chinese, through their presence and investments, are developing the economies of African countries, involving the continent in globalization through trade, and constructing useful – and sometimes less useful – infrastructure in exchange for raw materials. These positive aspects of the Chinese presence in Africa are passed over.

The champion of this one-sided approach is the British author Martin Jacques, who in 2009 wrote a worldwide bestseller with his When China Rules the World and even ended up on a much-envied spot – Obama’s bedside table. Jacques also claims that the West is in for it, as we will soon be dominated by a people imbued with a “Middle Empire mentality,” the main characteristic of which is a feeling of superiority toward the rest of humanity. The former Marxist gleefully predicts nothing less than “the end of the Western world.” The success of this book demonstrates how much this sort of – to my mind very exaggerated – doom mongering is in demand.

I started with the idea of writing a sober-minded book that wasn’t based on fear. This allowed me to recognize the distorted views of China outlined above and the serious misconceptions they lead to. For instance, since the beginning of the 21st century we have been bombarded with stories about the “Asian Century,” especially with regard to China. We have been led to believe that Europe is being bought up by Chinese investors. Every potential acquisition is fearfully presented in the media as the beginning of China’s victory march.

In reality, based on actual figures, the danger that “The Chinese Are Not Coming” may turn out to pose a bigger threat to Europe than “The Chinese Are Coming.” According to Eurostat, in 2011 and the first half of 2012, Chinese investments in Europe amounted to no more than four billion euros, significantly less than what the US invested in Europe, or what European countries invested in each other. This lack of Chinese dash may be an indication that the world’s second largest economy prefers growth markets such as Africa and Latin America – which bodes ill for Europe, a market that could very much use new investments and the extra activity and jobs that come with them.

Another misconception concerns the size of the Chinese economy, which by now is grossly overrated in the minds of the public. Recent research shows that a majority of Americans think their own economy is smaller than China’s, while in reality it is still twice as large. The same goes for the combined economies of the European Union, which is also roughly twice the size of China’s. My guess is that many Europeans are not aware of this fact either.

Of course there is no journalistic conspiracy at work here, and it would also be jumping to conclusions to hold journalists solely responsible for these misrepresentations. After all, such reports are based on well-informed Western sources that are only too happy to supply the press with the necessary ammunition. Non-governmental organizations, for instance, criticize the environmental damage caused by Chinese companies in Africa, and quite rightly so, but that doesn’t tell the whole story about China’s role in Africa.

Authoritative think tanks also feed these common misrepresentations, presumably in the hope of generating media attention. For instance, the pan-European think tank ECFR begins a report on China with the factually incorrect observation, “China is buying up Europe.” Neither does OECD have any qualms about grossly exaggerating the Chinese threat. This think tank for the Western industrial world recently warned that China would already outgrow the US by the end of 2016. This prediction turned out to be based on a comparison of buying power, while ignoring the commonly used benchmark of gross domestic product. The underlying reason is political: for years now, the OECD has been trying to make Western countries implement far-reaching reforms and it uses the Chinese threat as a handy means of putting the pressure on.

Misrepresentations of reality are not limited to the economy. I found few if any stories in the Western media about the increasing freedom for Chinese journalists and scientists. Yet several people I spoke to, both Chinese and Europeans, pointed out to me that this has definitely been the case over the past few decades, in spite of general censorship. This is not a linear process – it’s often a question of two steps forward and one back, or even the other way around – but “increasing freedom” most definitely will not be the impression that the average Western citizen has. People in the West will most likely mainly regard China as the heavyweight champion of censorship.

Both assessments are true. Yes, there is a formidable system of censorship, and yes, freedom has increased in spite of this. Western media place plenty of focus on the former but hardly any on the latter. Peer pressure is what plays tricks on journalists here. More so than elsewhere, this is a major factor in the reporting on China. It has to do with our dislike of an authoritarian political system that operates with so much less regard for individual rights than we are used to in our part of the world. Our loathing easily finds its way into the reporting. Understandable as it is, this attitude does lure Western journalists into adopting a form of tunnel vision, because they are afraid of being identified as sympathizing with an abject regime. A positive story about the increasing scientific and journalistic freedom in China just might be taken the wrong way and become an effective way of blowing your reputation as a critical journalist. A politically correct story about China’s shortcomings in this regard will no doubt meet with much more approval.

Those who study China are wary of this journalistic tendency to be politically correct. “As soon as you say anything positive about developments in China to a journalist, you run the risk of ending up in a corner that you really don’t want to be in,” says German political scientist Daniela Stockmann, who works at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She does research into the workings of Chinese media. “We want to remain independent. Whether you interpret our data in a negative or positive way depends on your own value system.” In her experience, journalists show a marked preference for a negative interpretation. She notices a tendency amongst her colleagues to therefore stay away from the public debate, and that is not conducive to creating a complete and balanced image of China.

Her fear of ending up in “a corner where she really doesn’t want to be” sounds familiar. With my own critical remarks about Western reporting on China, I run the risk of being regarded as the Chinese government’s “useful idiot.” I am, after all, coming close to the sort of criticism of Western media that is part of the standard toolkit of Chinese diplomats: “You journalists only focus on the things that go wrong with us, for instance when it comes to human rights and the situation in Tibet,” is a reproach I have often heard. At a European-Chinese meeting, the Chinese ambassador to the European Union denounced “a systematic bias” in “some media” that “persist in making condescending comments and ill-founded criticism.” No one wants to be associated with such representatives of an authoritarian regime that censors its own media in every detail, especially not after the recent stories about the Chinese hacking into the computer systems of prominent Western media such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. That is such an aggressive act, probably even perpetrated under the auspices of the Chinese army, that one feels tempted to swallow any criticism of Western media.

In his book Angst vor China (Fear of China), the German journalist Frank Sieren tells of a colleague who feels that Western journalists should indeed withhold criticism. Sieren, who has been working as a correspondent in China for almost twenty years, relates how he criticized his Western colleagues in a dinner speech at a meeting with German and Chinese journalists. His criticism was quite similar to mine. According to Sieren, “Western journalists often tend to lend the truth a helping hand in order to make a clearer distinction between right and wrong.” One of his German colleagues lost his appetite over the speech. He found Sieren’s criticism of Western colleagues unseemly and feared that it only played into the hands of the regime in China. Western journalists who portray the country as more open and free are simply the victims of clever propaganda, he claimed.

I can’t agree with his logic. Certainly, the Western system of freedom of the press is far preferable to the Chinese practice, but that doesn’t imply that we should not be self-critical because it might play into the hands of China. What’s more, self-criticism is essential to our strength. Exclude it and you will have great difficulty correcting your own blind spots, like this temptation to portray China as a threat.

And that would be a pity in an era when our knowledge of China is greater than ever before. As the British China-expert George Walden explained to me a little over-optimistically, “After having projected fears and fantasies for centuries, we are now for the first time beginning to see a realistic picture of China.” He was referring to the generally much increased interest in China, the possibilities of traveling to anywhere in that country and the large number of scientific disciplines focusing on China these days.

However, Walden’s realism is facing an uphill battle. Europe is going through a fundamental political and economic crisis, whereas China just keeps on growing. My argument is to first and foremost look at China in a realistic way – away from the adulation shown in the past, for instance by Sartre and Voltaire, but also away from the specters that threaten to dominate our views today.

No, China is not buying up Europe – there are no statistics supporting that claim. And no, China is not becoming an almighty superpower, as Martin Jacques claims. What with its unbelievably huge internal problems, ranging from air and water pollution, corruption and the gap between rich and poor to an ageing population, China has its work cut out for it. When Chinese policymakers point that out, they have every ground to do so. To interpret that as an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the Western world is in fact doing it for them.

China’s internal problems are as real as its external faults, because in spite of taking part in the global economy, the country is still geopolitically isolated. China has no real allies and knows itself to be surrounded by suspicious neighboring countries such as Japan and Korea who prefer to do business with the US. That image will not change until China has a political system that appeals to sensibilities elsewhere in the world. “Superficial friendships” based on mutual economic benefits are feasible, but they don’t make for true allies like the US has, thanks to its political system.

Then how should we relate to this country that is undeniably becoming increasingly important in the world? The former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, now 93, was still right on the button last year at a meeting on China in Berlin. We must be careful not to relapse into thinking in terms of Cold War logic, he stated, and we must avoid applying a “clash of civilizations” rhetoric to China. Our economic interest in China is pretty well developed these days, he observed: “All employers concern themselves with China because they understand that their employees can only make a living thanks to that country.” What is still lacking is true interest: “Intellectual interest is seriously lagging behind. We must learn to understand China.”

– Fokke Obbema is China-EU correspondent for Dutch daily De Volkskrant. This article is based on his book ‘China en Europa’ (‘China and Europe’), now published by Atlas Contact in Amsterdam.


Merry Christmas everyone! Before the turkey, sprouts, Queen and repeats, here’s IPPR’s Nick Pearce with a Santastic rundown of the best reads of 2012, stocking fillers all…

In the summer, IPPR launched its new journal, Juncture, and my recommend reading starts with the many world leading thinkers who have already written for it.

Each edition contains long-form essays on questions of importance to the centre-left in the UK but the journal is also deliberately cosmopolitan in reach, featuring pieces by theorists from around the world, country-specific articles and reflections on foreign policy challenges. Web-only articles are also regularly published.

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The Chinese economy is a source of wonder and fascination in the West, as well it might be.  According to the World Bank, the People’s Republic clocked a cool 9.1% growth in 2011, while the United States languished at 1.7%.  While the Chinese central bank is sitting on $3.24tn of reserves, the United States federal government is the most heavily-indebted entity in the history of humanity, with nearly $16tn in liabilities.[1]  While the absolute figures are smaller, the debt problem in Europe is so acute that it may yet rip the Eurozone apart, and it will almost definitely be a drag on growth for a decade or more.[2]  Increasingly, bewildered politicians in Europe are lashing out at each other, with few seeming to appreciate the magnitude of the debt problem and even fewer willing to level with the public about what it means.

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