Interview with Frank Sieren
[Interview with the renowned German best-seller author, documentary film producer and Asia specialist Frank Sieren, who's been living in China for nearly one and a half decades.]
(Freitag) The West has ceased to impress China a long time ago. April 4, 2008.
[translated by Wild Goose Journal from German into English]Q: Is Tibet becoming a turning point for Chinas development? A: It's not a turning point, but simply a tragedy. It seems that most of the individuals involved have lost sight of the concerns of the Tibetan people. We may debate about their degrees of involvement in this disaster, but we should name them first: The government in Beijing with its relentless, excessive policy of assimilation; then the Dalai Lama as the head of an exile government, who time and again tries to politicize his meetings with Western politicians, thus to suggest latitude which doesn't really exist when it comes to the crunch. Q: But there are also other players... A: If you are talking about the young rioters - they remind me rather of their contemporaries in the burning suburbs of Paris than of the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. With their senseless violence against Chinese retailers they have created tailwind for the hardliners in Beijing and brought the majority of the Chinese totally against themselves. On the issue of Tibet, the position of the Chinese leadership coincides with that of the large popular majority. We in the West tend to sweep this fact under the carpet. Q: How do you assess the position of the German government? A: Chancellor Merkel, who's taken the risk of provoking the Chinese leadership with her reception of the Dalai Lama, in order to score political points domestically with a romantic sentiment towards Tibet that has never existed in Tibet itself, has sent careless signals to the Tibet movement, promising far more than she can hold. Now she's burnt her fingers, Merkel won't be receiving the Dalai Lama again. In this crowd of egomaniacs, we also shouldn't forget the great number of Western journalists, blended by their own self-overestimation, with their sometimes manipulative, agitating reports. Q: Wasn't the rebellion in the oppressed Tibet just due? A: The question must be, was it useful? Anyone who knows even a little about the Chinese leadership would come to the conclusion that there's never been the slightest chance for a rebellion to turn things to the better. The result is shocking and it was foreseeable. Tibet's latitude was never narrower than today, and it will stay this way for the foreseeable time. And the threat of boycotting the Olympics doesn't help, neither. The reformers within the leadership who propose a more liberal handling of Tibet cannot score points; the hardliners who claim the West is using Tibet to destabilize China see themselves in upwind. The more wildly the West gesticulate, the narrower the latitude for the reformers. We tend to forget that the greatest changes in the Middle Kingdom have always come from within. Q: When people in the West talk about China, there's always either great euphoria or total aversion. Why such extremes? A: Because there's an epochal change taking place. Ever since the discovery of America by Columbus the West has dominated. Wherever the conquerors went, they were able to force the people to play by their rules. Now, that's no longer tenable. Nations like China are going their own and very successful way. Many in the West are fascinated by that dynamics, by the modernity, by how fast those people are able to leave poverty behind them. Q: And how is the aversion to explain? A: At about the end of the nineties the fear came along - the worry of having to share, the worry that our financial margins would decrease; that resources would become more and more expensive, and our values would loose importance; that more and more jobs would drift to China or Asia and our social standards would no longer sustainable. Q: Aren't those fears justified? A: They would be if you believe because of our own natural supremacy we don't have to do anything. We have to consider what we can still manufacture in the West and what we no longer can; which of our values are convincing, which not. What's new is that we can no more simply command when it comes to the question of what we consider good and right, instead we have to persuade and compromise. We have to reposition our way of thinking. That's difficult and it will take a few generations. Q: And what if that doesn't succeed? A: Then we will fare similarly as the nobility of the nineteenth century. It succumbed to the deceptive belief that the uprising of the new class were a win-win development. But their exclusive position could not hold. In hindsight we see it as a natural development. More and more people were able to participate in decision-making and advance. What happened then on the level of national states are now taking place on a global level. And because we are affected ourselves, our imagination isn't reaching far enough. Future generations, likewise, will see the relativization of the West as normal and desirable. Q: Are we doomed to fall? A: No. My only concern is that due to our arrogance and self-assurance we wouldn't take on this issue. It's strange - watching from afar, the Germans don't appear to be self-doubting, but rather tend to consider themselves the center of the world's civilization. Q: Do the Chinese see us that way? A: The young outgoing Chinese for instance are amazed that we have a democracy that is thwarting itself - one that hardly allows progress because it's stuck in the unbelievably complex process of finding compromises. Q: Does it mean authoritative regimes like the Chinese one are better equipped for today's challenges? A: It simply means that there are badly functioning democracies and well functioning dictatorships. Even though we don't like it, China is by far the most successful development project in the latest history of the world, and it isn't surpassing its peak for a long time yet. Never before has so many people wrest themselves from poverty. Q: How do you explain this ascent? A: To put it blatantly, there are three methods to gain power in the world: merchandises, arms and values. Value is a jurisdiction for the Pope or the Islam. The traditional method is the force of arms - war. However, since the fifties of the twentieth century, that has become less and less promising - what an incredible advancement! The Korean War was a turning point - it ended with a stalemate. Almost all wars raised by the Americans after that either failed or ended without a clear victory. Slowly it shows that in an era of globalization, cleverly built trade relationships promise more political influence than military actions. That's what the Chinese have specialized on - partly due to weakness, because their army is antiquated, and partly due to cleverness, because they are traditionally good merchants. They don't conquer, but create dependencies - containers don't come across as threatening. Q: How does it work? A: They have developed two methods. One I'd like to call the "concubine economics". Because with their combination of size, price and logistical agility, they offer the best manufacturing conditions worldwide for things ranging from bathing shoes to airplanes, they can afford to pick whom they want to work with. Western businesses have to court their Chinese partners like the concubines once did their emperor. The concubine economics brings China the world's highest foreign investment of more than 60 billion US dollars each year and the highest trade surplus of nearly 300 billion. The second method is the "Mother Courage economics". The Chinese help mismanaged countries, like those in Africa, by building their infrastructures cheap and fast and then running them, in order to receive long-term resource contracts in return. If the customer is satisfied - which usually is the case - long-term political alliances emerge across continents, shifting the global structures in favor of the developing countries. Q: Do you have an example? A: Take Nigeria. The Chinese say, you have a railway built by the British and out of maintenance for a hundred years. We'll invest 8 billion US dollars in those tracks. We don't do it out of selflessness, for we want to buy your minerals and we'll have to transport them. You can decide for yourselves whether half of the workers will be locals or only a third. If you insist on half, it will take twice as long. Q: You have written that the Chinese are dictators towards the inside and democrats towards the outside. What do you mean by that? A: What they want towards the inside is - partly out of conviction that this were crucial for China's stability, partly for the sake of power preservation - that democracy be introduced as late as possible. Towards the outside, the Chinese leadership is already saying, we represent 1.3 billion people, and we advocate a new world order in which the original principle by the Europeans apply: "one man, one vote". In this sense they are the advocates of the largest co-determination movement in the human history. Q: How can the Chinese people itself gain influence? A: Through an unwritten contract with their leadership. If it fails to improve people's lives, the contract will be cancelled and people will take it to the street: 10, 20 or 100 million of them. That would be something different than a rebellion in Tibet, which altogether is of no importance to China. The fear of such an eruption forces the leadership to exert itself. It's a mistake to think dictators wouldn't be under any pressure. Q: So, are you talking about the breaking point where the China project could fail? A: The big question is whether China manages to develop an economic system that doesn't consume as much resources as it's happening with us. The Chinese are standing in front of the challenge which even the West was unable or unwilling to solve. And we should do whatever we can to help, instead of pointing fingers at China, for a Chinese environmental disaster would affect all of us. Also crucial would be the question whether they manage to gradually allow more participation in decision-making, because in the end that has to be there. However, it would be certainly unwise to introduce a democracy to the Western standard. Q: Why? A: Because you can only campaign on the same level as the voters, so a whole bunch of little Maos would be running. A large portion of the rural population is very traditional. There would speeches to make our hair stand on end, and then I'd like to read the Western media reports on that. Q: In other words, many Chinese are not yet ready for a democracy? A: The difficult task is to find the right moment for the introduction of democracy. Q: How do the young generations see it? A: The young Chinese have an almost post-modern relationship to politics, like many young people in Germany. They say, what do I care about this circus, I'm the captain of my own life and that's that. Interviewer: Marcus Engler