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

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

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

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

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

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