A big step backwards

by Shi Ming

A story goes around the world (Issue III/2020)

US Peace Corps -

Good old times: Members of the American Peace Corps during a visit in Peking in 1996. Photo: Peter Hessler


When the United States Peace Corps announced at the beginning of the year that it was halting its cooperation with China, a representative of the organisation said it didn't want to get involved with questionable projects for the Chinese Government. Since the end of the Cold War, the agency has been active abroad in the name of international understanding and dialogue and it is seeking to show the people of China “American values”. Members of the organisation mainly teach English in the country. Its official statement contained two main messages: The first was the accusation that China has tried to exert political influence on the Peace Corps. On the other hand, it is a declaration of its innocence, suggesting that the USA operates the organisation as a well-intentioned form of language and cultural mediation.

But, up to this day, it remains unclear what exactly triggered the withdrawal of the Peace Corps from China. The question of who is blame is also wide open. Either the Trump-government closed down the operation to make a political statement, or the decision followed a real fight behind the scenes. This example reveals a roughening of the tone in cultural relations between China and the West. Caution is on the rise and, with a glance at China, with good reason. For more than a decade now, the Chinese Ministry of Education has financed Confucius-institutes have been expanding their reach worldwide at a remarkable pace. Just a little bit of language, culture and “storytelling”, what is the problem with that? Like Washington, Beijing is using the fig leaf of well-meaning cultural cooperation.

Indeed, the Chinese version of what Germans refer to as “international cultural policy”, goes beyond forging cosy offers of cooperation with the West. Talk of harmless town twinning, school exchange programmes. seminars for seniors, tea ceremonies and calligraphy, doesn’t distract from what is happening. Just like the US, China is adopting the clout of soft power. Beijing seeks cultural policy sway abroad - and has long followed this aim. What’s more, it is racing ahead of other nations.

For president Xi Jinping, culture is a security policy issue

Some Confucius Institutes in Germany make their invites to German speakers dependent on whether they will touch on sensitive issues like Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan or the activities of the Huawei company. Those who do not adhere to official rules are not invited. The list of prohibited subject grows according to the daily developments in Chinese politics. In times of the Corona crisis, it is also considered good manners for invited guests to voice a few words of praise for China’s “successful control of the epidemic”. Off limits however, is the fact that the Communist Party of China's (CCP) initial confidentiality enabled the rapid expansion of the virus. Whoever fails to express praise to the language and culture ambassadors from the Far East is not welcome.

You can observe the trend towards this firm hand in cultural cooperation emerging ever since Xi Jinping assumed the leadership of the CCP in 2012. For Xi, culture is of relevance to security policy and this means: The state determines how cultural exchange takes place. There were already signs of this back in 2014. At that time, the Chinese Dragon boat festival was being held in France with grants from the Beijing Ministry of Culture. Once it became clear that Tibetan tea ceremonies were to take place amid the festivities, the tone shifted. If Paris went ahead with its plans, it would be tantamount to interfering in China's internal affairs the embassy said.

At the same time the activities of Western NGOs and governmental cooperation projects on Chinese soil are subject to increasingly critical examination. Since 2016, a special resolution passed by the CCP only allows foreign players to operate within a framework of clearly set boundaries in the People's Republic. Any project that requires sizable financing and possibly affects “Chinese cultural sovereignty” must be be approved. Similar conditions apply to Chinese-Western cooperation in the field of social sciences. Whereas this was until a few year ago a clear part of the cultural convention between Beijing and its partners, these days they are monitored with eagle eyes by the Chinese authorities. In 2015 the Academy of Social Science (CASS) in Beijing sounded the alarm bells and warned of a hostile acquisition in the field of science. It was a “person-to-person infiltration” by the West, according to CASS because the latter “does not want to give up on the project of ruining our socialist fatherland”.

Hardliners in China are already talking about a new edition of the Cold War

Since then the Chinese State Department only issues visas to Western researchers who have been previously on file for making “China-friendly appearances”. Even scientists who were invited by high-ranking Chinese Officials have been subsequently been uninvited on orders from the top. On the other hand, Chinese researchers taking part in exchanges have recently often had their passports withdrawn.

In 2019 the Technical University Berlin’s China centre planned a German-Chinese symposium on the theme of urban planning. The conference venue was Tongji University in Shanghai. But as two Uighurs were among the invited attendees, the Chinese partner refused outright to cooperate and even threatened to cut cooperation with the TU Berlin completely. The result: The event took place in Taiwan, which also caused an uproar. The TU had disregarded “the culture and the pride of the Chinese people,” Beijing said.

But China's conduct is facing increasing resistance from the West. In the United States 40 out of a total of 110 universities closed their Confucius Institutes, recently even in the liberal stronghold California. The justifications for the closures ranged from a potential threat to their independence to accusations of espionage. And also European patience seems to be running out: In Sweden, the last Confucius Institute closed in April, the Czech capital Prague has discontinued its partnerships with Beijing and Shanghai and - quite scandalously - has replaced cooperation with Taipei, and in Berlin the senate recently headed a preliminary investigation into a professorship endowed by China at the Free University. China has a say in the contract. Is China knowingly undermining academic independence, to polish its own image in Germany? Berlin doesn't want to continue defencelessly accepting this.

In this way, a dialogue that has so far often been conducted with terms like - “nice ambience”, “fruitful discussion”, “talkative” - has slowly morphed into an increasingly fierce exchange of blows. In early 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Education cancelled a total 234 University cooperations with western countries. In Europe, those affected included London, Birmingham and Lyon. In March 2020, the academic exchange was halted between China and the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Also in the healthcare sector, sport and in regional relations, the termination of cooperation agreements has long been used by Beijing to exert leverage. Hardliners in China are already talking about a new edition of the Cold War, while in Brussels, China is increasingly being viewed as a “systemic rival”.

This is not a good omen for cultural exchange and for those who in the past always preached about the harmlessness of the Chinese-Western cultural relations. But it is precisely this presumption of innocence that may be the system error in cultural exchange between the West and China. Perhaps we are being misled by the assumption is that cultures are value-free zones and the idea that disputes are to be avoided at all costs, and rather should be cloaked in flowery rhetoric of reconciliation. Maybe this obstructs any honest cooperation rather than facilitates it. Of course it's a noble goal: a “Clash of Civilisations” is to be avoided at any price.

The fact is that cultural encounters between China and its partners will always be accompanied by political friction. If you go can wipe away conflict through communication tricks, you can only see the uncomfortable questions which still linger on the table - but will by no means develop a constructive cultural exchange.

Last year, when I worked with German scholars on China in Berlin on alternatives for the German-Chinese cultural exchange I spoke, outlining this background about a “dialogue as a rival”. When one of the researchers heard this, she was agitated: “Dialogue must take place. At all costs!” she said. Her thesis was: A dialogue is only possible with partners and not among rivals - and the dialogue should be saved above all else. “At all costs?”, I asked back, “Is there still a dialogue? Or is it more blackmailing monologue?”

Translated by Jess Smee



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