No, China is not becoming an almighty superpower

The fear of China becoming a global hegemon has permeated public discourse in the west. Journalists have been guilty of small self-indulgences with the truth to fit the narrative. The result is a distorted view of China in the western media.

Flickr/masha_k_sh. Some rights reserved.Flickr/masha_k_sh. Some rights reserved.

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.

The Chinese are not coming

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.

The trap of reporting on China

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.

Tainted glasses            

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.”

 

This article was originally published in Dutch daily De Volkskrant. Thanks go to the author and the newspaper for allowing us to republish it here, and to Leo Reijnen and Jane Bemont for the translation.

About the author

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.