November 28, 2020
Not a day goes by without China appearing in Western news or social media. Almost exclusively with negative reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang or the security law in Hong Kong, government propaganda, or serious concerns that China and its communism will take over the world.
Many reports and opinions from Western think tanks and researchers have been published this year about what is happening in China and how China should be approached or dealt with. The contents range from high vigilance to direct attacks in which China is labeled as a serious threat to the future of the “free world”. These pieces are widely reported in the media and often taken over by politicians for their China policy in a considerable number of Western governments.
Alternative reports with different sounds or perspectives are snowed under or beaten down. As a result, the perception of China in the Western world has shrunk to a very limited number of accusatory criteria with an unprecedented low point in how the West views China.
How did it get this far?
Before going into this question, this article is not intended to present opinions or perspectives on specific situations or developments in China that come up again and again. This article is about how and why the increasingly extreme (anti) China policy in Western politics and media came about. Several reflections behind the policy are presented with suggestions for the relationship between China and the West.
First, it has gradually dawned upon the West that China has succeeded in building a society with growing prosperity, a booming middle class, and an astonishing eradication of poverty.
This is the first time since the colonial era and industrial revolution that a country with a significantly different form of government, culture, and past has accomplished this in the modern era, until now only reserved for the Western world (and Japan).
Noting that, the basis of current Western prosperity has of course not been established in its current forms of government. Without the geopolitical and financial legacy of colonial times, today’s proportions of prosperity might have been very different.
The view that since its opening in 1978 China should have turned towards a comparable democratic model as the only possibility for prosperity has been a misunderstanding. One reads and hears in this view the sounds in the media that the West has provided this prosperity in China but has made a miscalculation regarding the expectation of a turnaround.
This conclusion has a narcissistic streak. China has certainly benefited greatly from the booming demand for goods from the West, but this development has not come about by charity. The relentless capitalism of counting pennies coupled with a lack or willingness of low-skilled workers and tougher environmental laws in the West has shifted cheap, labor-intensive, and polluting industries to China.
The cheap semi-finished or end products went and are still heading West. Western societies and people were no longer allowed to be exposed to this pollution or labor, but they have been benefiting fully from this shift of pollution and low-skilled labor.
Secondly, China is increasingly coming to the forefront of the world stage, through, among other things, the new Silk Road, mega-projects in infrastructure, Chinese acquisitions in the commercial world, but also increasingly active participation and influences in multilateral organizations such as the WHO or UN.
Western hegemony and rule of “world policy” is under pressure from the rise of China.
The West indicates that policy in China has rapidly become more authoritarian and extreme in recent years, with developments such as in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the Social Credit System, or the growing power of Chinese President Xi Jinping as sharp condemnations and clear foundations in Western China policy. The differences in economic policy, certainly regarding trade agreements, tariffs, and market access, also contribute to this tightening.
The above is just a brief summary of the key points and causes of the current China policy as presented in many Western countries.
A glimpse behind the facade of this policy
In addition to the rapidly deteriorating relationship with China, Western societies are facing increasing pressure from within to maintain the satisfaction of their own population with regard to policies and general functioning of societies. Economic malaise, social unrest, and growing polarization can be seen in various societies.
Especially this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed political and social systems regarding the capabilities, considerations, and ways different governments and people deal with the virus. The coronavirus is like an important exam for the government and people in societies dealing with extreme changes.
No society will escape this exam and its result.
The Western hot tub
Western societies have spent decades in a hot tub that no other country could match (partly thanks to its colonial legacy). Freedom, individualism, social well-being, open economies, a high degree of prosperity, and the “untouchable” yardstick of Western values and norms against which the rest of the world has to be measured.
However, this hot tub is starting to crack due to a lack of maintenance and innovation (also accelerated by the pandemic). Recent history comes knocking at the door; systemic racism, outdated administrative government systems, discussions about the relationship between freedom, privacy, and responsibility, and the environment has also been knocking on this door for years because of the unprecedented, destructive treatment by people and systems.
The expiration date of the current bath seems to have passed but new cracks are still sealed with pieces of duct tape instead of major maintenance – not to speak of building a new bath.
Is there a degree of insecurity or doubt that values and standards will not survive in a new bath? Especially considering the current geopolitical and economic changes?
The pressure on the Western system is also increasing due to new and faster technological innovations that could offer many possibilities for a better world. The environment, the economy, societies, and governments can benefit greatly from technology that holds the potential to create a better and sustainable future for our children.
However, it does require the will to bring about radical change, as well as resilience and trust in government and in humanity. But this seems to often be lacking in 2020. Awareness is starting to emerge, but technology is often seen as a threat, especially when new players with different backgrounds appear on the scene.
All of this has resulted in a growing resistance to change as well as outside influences with a more intense reaction against “outsiders”. The “weapon” is a very balanced selection of perspectives and observations for politics and media that foster contradictions to establish clear boundaries between good and evil. This happens even though the water seems to be slowly seeping out from inside the hot tub.
The issue on many political and social lips about China; the violation of human rights in Xinjiang
The sharp condemnation of specific situations in China by Western countries means that there is very little room left for alternative interpretations and broader insights to assess China as a dynamic and diverse society and as part of the contemporary world or geopolitical influence.
Propaganda is usually associated with authoritarian governance and policies, but the West at this time can certainly pat itself on the back with a balanced propaganda campaign against China. The media and politicians seem to want to create only one voice about China, every day.
One of the foremost tools in that systematic propaganda is the condemnation of human rights violations in Xinjiang. Through carefully selected reports and investigations, the conviction is clear and ready for the West; the “these are the facts and norms” mentality prevails.
Alternative perspectives or reports are dismissed as propaganda. For example, a comprehensive report on Xinjiang prepared by the Human Rights Institute of the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing has been completely ignored in the Western media and in the political discourse.
Simultaneously and conspicuously, little is disclosed about the origin and sources of the carefully selected publications and who published them. Let alone an investigation into the human or political motives behind these reports.
At the very least, it would be cause for further critical consideration of the fact that Mr Adrian Zenz, the foremost Western researcher on Xinjiang, has literally stated that as a deeply believing “born-again Christian” and that he is directly guided by God in his Xinjiang investigations. Zenz is affiliated with very conservative, anti-communist, and religious foundations in the U.S.
We also rather seldom see any research or source checks regarding the funding and support of various Western think tanks, such as ASPI in Australia, that are constantly bombarding China with criticism, assumptions and hypotheses.
However, these are the sources that largely determine the basis of China policies in various Western countries. We must ask: Who actually informs and shape the China views of these politicians – and what are motives?
As stated at the outset, the purpose of this article is not to pass judgment on truths or untruths in specific situations. Rather, it points out that there is a great danger in believing (consciously or unconsciously) that there should be no need for further critical considerations and depth regarding backgrounds, assumptions, motives and content before setting up an unprecedentedly sharp policy or condemnation.
At this point, the sole purpose of media and politics appears to be only reaffirming the convictions against China without further investigations or considerations.
Isn’t this uniformity – in what we are told and not told – an indicator of propaganda? Just recall the reason presented at the time in favour of the US and the UK to invade Iraq in 2003.
Secondly, regarding Xinjiang, there is the question of perspective in relation to other anti-terrorism measures by different countries in the world. The current policy concerning Xinjiang has mainly come about after a number of deadly terrorist attacks in China in the first half of the past decade.
After the horrific September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the US and the Western allies started the “Global War On Terror”. Last September a report on the consequences of the War on Terror was published by the Watson Institute International and Public Affairs, Brown University in Rhode Island. Here some highlights:
800,000 war death, more than 3 million deaths from poverty, hunger, and lack of health care as a result of the wars, 37 million economic, political and religious refugees expelled from their homes. An enormous erosion of human and civil rights in the war zones.
However, this report has hardly been mentioned in Western mainstream news or been debated in Western government circles. And how does a report such as this and the immense, tragic consequences it documents relate to Western condemnations of other anti-terrorism policy actions?
The lack of depth and critical considerations of the credibility and motives of information sources as well as the lack of reflection and comparative perspectives are facts bound to have a crucial influence on current China policies as those in place by a number of Western countries.
Gradually, we also witness that proof is no longer always necessary, such as the ban of Huawei in various countries. Mistrust, suspicion, and increasingly ideology are gradually taking over China policies.
Are contemporary China policies perhaps rather a facade – cover-up – for the significant political, economic and social challenges that are knocking on the door of Western societies from within, instead of real “threats” coming from China?
A wider perspective on China policies
If human rights were to be judged, it could be argued that as human beings we are all still far away from any ideals. It is narcissistic and dangerous to create a clear distinction between “us” and “them”. Yes, people and politicians are allowed and able to judge others, and yes, there is still much to improve in China as it is in almost every society.
But politics and society should first look in their own mirrors to assess perspectives and motives from within before looking at – and projecting unto – others certain characteristics, always negative.
However, this mirror is carefully avoided in current Western propaganda.
“If China doesn’t change, then…” or “China should change so…”.
We encounter these statements on a daily basis in many opinions or policy documents about China, whether in the economic, political, or social field.
In these statements lies the danger that Western societies are still firmly convinced that their policies, economic model, norms, and values are the – only – benchmarks for humanity. But how well have the past 70 years been used to finally solve the worlds’ – humanity’s – problems of poverty, warfare, environment, inequality, racism, or human rights? Is it really that there is no more room for or need to improve? That there is no reason or necessity anymore to exercise self-criticism or reflection?
Are these two statements about China above not actually another disguise of the fact that Western societies are facing major changes? Or rather, would the West not be wise to outline a clear policy of its own and its vision for a better world future and, very importantly, put forward a clear and comprehensive action plan, instead of merely run a confrontational, reactive policy against others?
However, improvement means adaptation, which for many people in the West is seen as a sacrifice or a violation of freedom. This holds tremendous resistance to change, even if it proves necessary for the future of the next generations.
Societies digging their heels are going to erode and polarize sooner or later, especially in a strong and rapidly changing world with new opportunities in technology, knowledge, and communication.
China and the West towards the future
For the pursuit of a positive, sustainable, human, and safe future anywhere in the world, cooperation between people around the world seems inevitable and necessary.
The integral challenges or problems of the environment, poverty, social inequalities or, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic do not stop at borders; they require multilateral organizations to tackle them. These organizations already exist, but internal social changes, geopolitical relations, and technological innovations require reconsiderations and possible reorganizations in structure and set-up.
This article only touches upon a few perspectives of Western China policy. Cultural, historical, social, and racial differences between the major geopolitical powers have a major influence on how people see and judge each other.
Knowledge and the right people in the right place stimulating greater mutual understanding and rapprochement is crucial for the future. This is not a 10-hour “How can I better understand China or Europe?” seminar but a long, intensive and continuous process together. At the moment, there is astonishing little knowledge and understanding of each other.
Collaboration and mutual understanding are not words that feature prominently in current China policies of Western countries, to say the least.
From an economic point of view, there is still (fortunately) cooperation in many areas, but this is also more apparent in fields where there is a dire necessity to keep one’s own economies going. Politically, socially and also racially, the divide is getting both wider and deeper between China and the West with potentially dangerous consequences.
Wouldn’t it be better to adopt a policy that aims first and foremost to promote strategic cooperation between China and the West on common grounds?
Admittedly, this is indeed not easy or, rather, it’s unprecedentedly complicated with immense adjustments and compromises required on all sides. Furthermore, there is a crystal clear need to analyse and bring forward one’s own self-reflection, vision, and action plan for the future. That’s what is needed as input for the building of a new strategic multilateral and long-term collaboration.
But the world is changing and as humanity we face enormous integral challenges such as sustainability and inequality. We must all make our contribution to a collective global responsibility. We cannot stop now, avid the challenge or close our eyes to it.
We should not desire that either.
What if we started from the positive opportunities instead of the threats in a China policy? Especially this COVID-19 year in which many social aspects are already being exposed and changes are already taking place.
What if we recognized that the differences and contradictions between the West and China are many times smaller than the objectively common grounds, interests and responsibilities?
The year 2020 is an absolutely unique opportunity for the beginning of a new thriving chapter in humanity. The new chapter is already being written anyway, building up in either collaboration or polarizing at the expense of the environment and humanity.
Two key points of a positive China policy or rather a positive policy for a new geopolitical – and common global chapter:
1) Multilateral collaboration in policy-making for common interests and challenges such as the environment, poverty, and sustainable economic models where technology plays a positive role.
For this, it is extremely important to have the right people and knowledge in the right place to properly formulate and implement this process. More integration in cooperation models will lead to a reduction of sharp contrasts and more similarities. The collaboration strategy will also enhance the chance to include one’s own policies, values, and norms.
2) Mutual understanding and knowledge towards and from each other, which can lead to joint new insights and models for building and improving a better, integrated and sustainable future in diversity.
Building people-to-people relationships, especially among younger generations, is extremely important in this regard, as this policy must span decades. A better mutual social and human understanding of each other promotes trust and stimulates further rapprochement.
One must see it as a win-win – while other more confrontational strategies are likely to end in either win-lose or lose-lose.
On the other hand, there are internal, challenging conditions for switching to a positive China policy:
1) A clear own policy and vision for the future regarding environmental, social, and sustainable developments. Very importantly, it includes a political strategy and social scope, or mobilization, to actually being able to implement new policies – rather than keeping them as statements or drafts.
No reactive policy, but only an active own policy and vision that can be included in the formation of a multilateral policy in collaboration.
2) A self-contemplation and reflection with the realization that change and improvement are unavoidable and necessary if we want to ensure a sustainable, human and safe future in collaboration with others.
Indeed a huge challenge! But shall we really just be able to continue to drive further political, cultural, racial, and social polarization and short-term profit-based economic and political gains at the expense of the environment and social equality? No doubt accompanied by new, terrible wars sooner or later?
Or shall we, instead, see our times as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the current generation to turn the page and move in a new global direction. Together.
Don’t we owe this to our children?
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Gordon Dumoulin broke up from a successful business career in The Netherlands and lives in Beijing where he is the founder and CEO at Dumoco Natural Ingredients. Through Gordon’s passion to expose a better China understanding in the ‘outside world’, 5iZ has been born to promote a more complete, wider perspective on China today and assist interested people and businesses to get their feet on the ground in China through his wide organization and relations network and create an objective China understanding through ‘5 eyes’. He also publishes articles about China on Medium. And he is rather active and has many followers on LinkedIn.