Germany and the Silk Roads – Chinese Imperialism, or German Protectionism?


 

The Silk Roads are returning. China’s largest and most ambitious international economic plan, the “One Belt One Road Initiative” (yidaiyilu) will see its influence tangibly spread over Asia, Africa and Europe. With newly planned trade corridors over much of the world, a vast number of countries will be affected by the initiative. Included in that number is Germany. The question arises: how will “One Belt One Road” affect the country?

The “One Belt One Road” initiative has not appeared over-night. Xi Jinping first announced his masterwork in September 2013[1] and has since then developed into an extremely ambitious vision. The Chinese leader pictures a better connected world, held together by free trade and global cooperation. The proposed maritime ‘road’ leads over South-east Asia to Africa, where China has been carrying out major infrastructure projects already for a number of years. The ‘belt’ stretches across Central Asia and all the way to Western Europe[2].

“Inclusiveness” (baorongxing) is the central word to Xi’s rhetoric for the project. For many outside of China, this standpoint seems uncharacteristic of a country renowned for its history of closed borders and secrecy but China has been gradually opening up business since the start of economic reforms in the late 70s. China is now not only more open economically, but also confident in its business know-how. The “One Belt One Road” initiative signals China’s desire – and capability – to join the major players of the world economy.

A number of German media outlets are already expressing their fears over the new silk roads. Wary Critics point to China’s track record for promoting their own form of ‘illiberal free trade’ at ends with the western model of international trade, expecting its development to be damaging to German companies. The Brics states are portrayed as an enemy of a more just existing western system, with China at the centre of the trouble[3]. The closeness of Putin to the Chinese leadership and his willingness to be part of the project scares the German media further. [4] There is concern for China’s apparent desire to make economic in-roads into the Eurasian region on their own conditions.[5] This behaviour is generally known as making trade agreements, and both Europe and America are quite used to doing it themselves.

Any bilateral agreement does of course have political implications, but Germany’s fear of working with China on predominantly Chinese terms is telling of previous agreements where Europe has been the instigator of negotiations. More justified would be a view of caution towards the kind of company, rather than Chinese FDI in general.  Up to now mainly only state-owned companies have been involved in the initiative.[6] That could potentially lead to more Chinese political influence internationally in trade compared to Chinese private companies.

Some German companies are however openly enthusiastic, with eyes fixed solidly on new business opportunities. Duisburger Hafen in Nordrhein-Westfalen already considers itself a central point for trade relations not just between China and Germany, but also Europe. In October 2016 the port claimed that “when you are in Duisburg, you are in Europe”[7], as part of an announcement regarding expanding its China business. Duisport already cooperates with Urumqi, Far-western China’s trade powerhouse; a city central to the new Silk Road’s expansion due to its strong position in central Asia.

Some Chinese groups are meanwhile not entirely satisfied with current Sino-German trade relations. The China International Investment Promotion Agency, accused Germany of protectionism directed at China after changes in Germany’s regulation of foreign trade[8] but as both countries are members of the WTO, it seems unlikely that Germany actually is able to target China unilaterally with trade restrictions. It is however important that Germany is the one being criticised for poor international trade practice. The standpoint also parrots Xi Jinping’s ‘Inclusiveness’ rhetoric.

Germany does not appreciate the very general sounding rhetoric China prefers to use when it talks about official plans. Just like the extremely vague (and clearly related) Chinese Dream (zhongguomeng) back home in China, there is no exact, set in stone plan for the new Silk Roads. Instead China offers a lofty dream with networks of possible trade corridors on maps with a mysterious lack of national borders. Daniel Müller from the Ostasiatischen Verein believes that the new Silk Road is more of a conglomerate of many individual initiatives rather than one unified grand plan.[9] From the Chinese perspective, this pragmatic approach is perfectly normal; indeed it is part of modern Chinese culture. For Germany however, the uncertainty raises concern further.

Much of the misunderstanding between Germany and China stems from differences in political and business culture. Germany favours clear, objectively measurable plans. China on the other hand prefers big ideas resolved with pragmatism. Deng Xiaoping’s infamous pragmatism brushed off on the nation, and has remained the culture ever since. As the new Silk Roads progress,  what Germany is likely to find even more challenging than China’s apparent lack of clear planning Is the country’s special brand of pragmatism, with force.

German critics’ fears of the “One Belt One Road” Initiative are focussed on the wrong concerns. The massive infrastructure project will not necessarily be bad for Germany and its businesses, but will change political and economic relations in ways  which as of yet  are hard to predict. What is certain: the “One Belt One Road” initiative will change global relations massively.

Written by Timothy Van Gardingen,  Student of German and Chinese at the University of Leeds, on 25th October 2017. 

I am currently writing my dissertation on the relationship between Germany and ‘One Belt, One Road’. I would be grateful for any commentary and criticisms from any experts who happen to stumble across my article. As of yet, there is very little scholarship on the topic, and any pointers will be greatly appreciated.

[1] SCIO. 2016.  哈萨克斯坦:“一带一路”从这里走向世界. http://www.scio.gov.cn. Retrieved on 24/10/2017

[2] Telepolis.  2017. China: Der Traum von einer neuen Seidenstrasse

[3] Zeit Online. 2017. Chinas Traum einer neuen Seidenstrasse

[4] Zeit Online. 2017. Chinas Traum einer neuen Seidenstrasse

[5] Zeit Online 2017. Chinas Traum einer neuen Siedenstrasse

 

[6] DW. 2017. Die deutsche Sicht auf Chinas Seidenstraße

[7]“Duisburger Hafen. 2016. Duisport is expanding its China Business „when you are in Duisburg, you are in Europe” retrieved from presse.duisport.de. 25/10/2017

[8]China International Investment Promotion Agency (Germany). 2017. Kommentar zur Änderung der Außenwirtschaftsverordnung durch die Bundesregierung. www.ma-dialogue.de. Retrieved 24/10/2017

[9] DW. 2017. Die deutsche Sicht auf Chinas Seidenstraße

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Holocaust memorial off-limits to AfD leader


originally published at The Leipzig Glocal

 

Even with a global rise of the extreme-right, it’s safe to say no one would expect its leaders to visit a holocaust memorial with any intention other than to cause trouble. That seems to have been the thinking as member of the far-right wing AfD Björn Höcke was blocked from attending a holocaust memorial at the former concentration camp Buchenwald. Such a decision at first seems reasonable; even sensible, but there are implications. It was certainly right to block him entry to the memorial, but that doesn’t mean his spiteful opinions should be silenced entirely, as to do so has its own dangers.

Would Höcke have been rejected entry to the memorial if he had not made his recent speech in which he called for an end to what in his eyes is a culture of lingering on nazi crimes?

He described the Berlin holocaust memorial as a ‘memorial of shame’ and demanded a ‘180 degree turn in political memory’. These are hardly the words of a politician wishing to attend a holocaust memorial to pay respects. Either he is a hypocrite who likes to make controversial statements for fun and not for action, or Höcke intended to carry out some form of twisted protest at the very site of historical horror and regret.

Höcke’s party leader, Frauke Petry, even denounced the speech, stating that “Björn Höcke has become a burden for the party, with his go-it-alone attitude and constant sniping”. This highlights how much he and his views stand outside of an already far-right party. Petry’s condemnation could however be taken to be in the light of the recent attempted ban of the extreme-right NPD. The AfD cannot risk being seen as too far-right as that would risk being considered Verfassungswidrig, against the constitution.

As right-populist as the AfD is, they are not the NPD. It appears as if Höcke would fit nicely into the more extreme, but in disarray party. The decision not to ban the NPD was followed by disbelief at the time, as the reason given was that the part was too insignificant to damage Germany’s democracy. The AfD in contrast is not insignificant and therefore would not have the same defence against an attempted ban. As unfortunate as Höcke’s views are, he should be allowed to express them. We know from the past that banning extreme opinions in their entirety causes greater problems by driving supporters of such views underground. That eventually leads to groups like the NSU and the RAF terrorist organisations of the not-so-far past.

Höcke’s ban from attending the memorial therefore comes down to location. Although historical memorials do have a political background and do have political consequences, they are not the location for aggressively stirring up emotionally-fuelled political questions. It is impossible not to be shaken emotionally by a visit to a former concentration camp. Many visiting the Buchenwald memorial will have been affected more personally than others.  Whether Germany does as Höcke believes linger too much on past horrors or not, a place symbolic of millions of innocent lives lost is not and never will be the place to express that opinion.

We are left in the difficult situation of having to grant Höcke his unpleasant beliefs, but that certainly does not make him welcome where his beliefs would bite hardest.

by Timothy Van Gardingen

Feature photo: Björn Höcke at open house in Thüringer Landtag, 13 Juni 2015. By © Vincent Eisfeld / vincent-eisfeld.de, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

 

 

 

The threat to journalism in the post-truth era


orginally posted at The Gryphon

It wouldn’t be an official Trump announcement without a light hint of outrage. This time it is journalists who had a lot to worry about. In his first press conference since becoming President-Elect – something he appears to have actively avoided until now – Trump blocked certain media groups from speaking. He accused them of cultivating ‘fake news’ and therefore should remain silent.

Trump’s stance is worrying. It shows a willingness to break unsaid rules and expectations regarding political transparency. It is also a direct attack on freedom of speech, that fundamental concept which the US claims to champion so vehemently.

Unfortunately there is popular fuel for his statement. ‘Fake news’ is becoming a norm, not an exception.  A woman in Germany, for example, reported a horrific attack carried out on a teenager by an asylum seeker. It came to light later that it never happened, but not before the fakes news had spread.

On the surface then, it may well look as if the President-Elect would be justified in denouncing fake news. The problem is that, to him, his critics are the creators of fake news. A word against Trump is not a truth. What is not ‘truth’ is now to be censored. If the alarm bells are not ringing yet, they should be.

When the President-Elect, soon to be one of the most powerful people in the world, can decide who can and cannot express their views, there is a distinct threat to freedom of the press. It is essential that all sides of debate are free to question, criticize and praise as they will, because it is fundamental to the transparency of a democracy. The powerful must be held to account and that becomes impossible when critical voices are silenced.

How does this case affect the rest of the world? It spreads. A meeting of the European parliament group ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom) has already followed suit. The meeting, where right-populist leaders including Frauke Petry, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders attended, likewise denied entry to left-leaning news sources. Trump has set a new precedent.

Transparency is on the way out and with it comes the rise of actual fake news. A new website has opened called ‘hoaxmap’ which plots all recently discovered fake news stories across Germany and Austria (not yet for the UK, but perhaps the website will expand in the future). The map is completely covered. Whatever you think of the media, one of its main roles theoretically is to keep the leaders of the world in check. It cannot enforce, but it can raise awareness and encourage action. If the journalistic sphere becomes inundated with fake news it will become impossible to do so. Journalists will face more false leads and a permanent threat of being blocked from important events. At the same time people will lose total trust in the press.

The protocol governing political transparency exists for a reason. That transparency is necessary for our society to function properly. If any change was ever needed, it would be towards a more transparent system; not change in which the looking glass slowly frosts over.

By Timothy Van Gardingen