Interview International

The Second World Power and its Social Complexity
An interview with Thomas Heberer

by Anna Shpakovskaya , 19 October 2022

Conducting free and long-term research on China and collaboration with Chinese researchers is crucial to understanding the second world power. German China scholar Thomas Heberer shares his insights into China’s complex relationship with Russia, the repression of the Uyghurs, entrepreneurs and the social credit system.

Thomas Heberer is Senior Professor of Chinese Politics and Society at the Institute of Political Science and the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He specialises in issues such as political, social and institutional change, entrepreneurship, strategic groups, the Chinese developmental state, urban and rural development, political representation, corruption, ethnic minorities and nationalities policies, the role of intellectual ideas in politics, fieldwork methodology, political culture and, recently, social disciplining and civilising processes in China. Thomas Heberer has been involved with China for over 50 years, first visiting the country in 1975 and working as an editor and translator at the Foreign Language Publishing House in Beijing from 1977 to 1981. He has conducted fieldwork regularly in China since 1981.
For details of his academic oeuvre, research projects and publications, see his website.

Books&Ideas: You have witnessed China’s unprecedented socio-economic transformation in the last five decades and produced numerous publications covering multiple issues on China, among which the topic of private entrepreneurs certainly stands out. In your recent co-authored book Weapons of the Rich: Strategic Action of Private Entrepreneurs in Contemporary China (Singapore, London, New York: World Scientific, 2020), you claim that the future of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ largely depends on the economic success of China’s private entrepreneurs. What does the case of private entrepreneurs tell us about China’s five-decade transformation?

Thomas Heberer: My first field research on the private sector was conducted in 1986-88. This sector had been re-admitted in 1979. At that time, there were supposedly only 140,000 private entities left in the entire country. Accordingly, for decades there was a shortage of everyday goods and various services that had been offered by self-employed people until this sector dried up in the mid-1950s. Even after 1979, employing workers was still forbidden. Nevertheless, I repeatedly encountered workers who were classified as ‘relatives’ and allegedly received no payment.

In 1986 and 1987 alone, I spent eight months doing field research in China and interviewed more than 1,500 households in eight cities in four different provinces. Essentially, these were stand-to-stand interviews in markets or house-to-house interviews in shopping streets. I had the questions in my head and noted down the answers. The southern Chinese city of Hangzhou was my first location of fieldwork in 1986. The director of the Administration Bureau of Industry and Commerce, which was responsible for my research, told me that he would present ten self-employed persons in an office room the next morning. I would have two hours for questions, then my research in the city would be completed and I could continue my journey to another place. I replied that this was not in line with the requirements of scientific research in Germany. I explained that I wanted to conduct surveys of all self-employed people in each of three business quarters, about 300-400 people. That, he replied, was impossible.

A happy coincidence came to my rescue. Before I left Beijing, I had written a letter to the then Party leader Hu Yaobang, saying that I would like to interview him in my function as Federal Chairman of the German-Chinese Friendship Association. A letter from the Beijing Foreign Ministry, which reached me via the Chinese Society for Friendship with Foreign Countries in Hangzhou, noted that Hu, who had just returned from an official visit to Germany, had agreed to an interview. This reply worked wonders. Afterwards, Hangzhou and other cities all made proper arrangements as I had imagined, and all provincial leaders had already been informed of this fact prior to my arrival. In 1996-98 and 2012-19, I conducted further research on private entrepreneurs.

In August 1986, I met Hu in Zhongnanhai in Beijing, the headquarters of the CPC and the State Council. For more than four hours, we talked about topics such as the relationship between economic and political reforms, the new role of the private sector, the relationship between party and state, and the relationship between China and the USA on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other. When asked how the re-emergence of the private sector related to Marxist theory, which aimed to abolish private ownership of the means of production, Hu agreed that a certain amount of exploitation existed. But the teachings of Marx and Engels had to be reinterpreted today: ‘Marx never saw an electric light bulb burning, Engels never saw an aeroplane, and neither of them ever came to China. These are different times. We should measure such questions against the real situation in China.’

Books&Ideas: What has changed overall?

Thomas Heberer: In 1987, all restrictions on employment and size of private enterprises were lifted, so this sector developed rapidly. Today, over 90% of all businesses are privately owned. China has a large number of millionaires, multimillionaires and billionaires. Originally an outlet for surplus rural labour, political outcasts and socially vulnerable groups such as the disabled, pensioners and people with criminal records, today’s big entrepreneurs and the next generation are mostly well-educated professionals, at least in the high-tech sectors. I was fascinated by the collective behaviour of private entrepreneurs and their networking. I came to the conclusion that private entrepreneurs form ‘strategic groups’ that strategically pursue collective goals in an informal way without intending to change the political system.

Books&Ideas: China’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked public outrage in Europe. Many now see China and Russia as close partners who share the same ideology, economic and geopolitical ambitions and strategies. Do you agree with this depiction of China?

Thomas Heberer: On the one hand, the Chinese government stresses that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states must be guaranteed, but on the other hand it abstained from voting on the condemnation of Russia in the UN Security Council. China blames the USA and NATO for not having given sufficient consideration to Moscow’s security interests. It is calling for a return to the negotiating table, but does not condemn Moscow’s breach of international law. At the same time, the Chinese government has repeatedly declared its intention to abide by Western sanctions against Moscow. The most important Chinese commercial banks have announced that they will no longer issue letters of credit for foreign trade financing with Russia, and Chinese manufacturers say that they will no longer supply spare parts and components for the Russian aviation industry. Simultaneously, however, Beijing declared that it would continue to buy the agreed wheat imports.

In China itself, there are different positions on the Ukraine war. Nationalist circles primarily blame the US and NATO for it and hope for a Russian victory. Political scientist Zheng Yongnian, for example, believes that the ‘Cold War’ ended with a Western victory. NATO’s eastward expansion has broken the promise made by Western states and increased Russian fears about the security threat. Well-known intellectuals, on the other hand, are quite critical of their government’s policy. To give just a few examples:

Sociologist Sun Liping (Qinghua University) explained that Russia is no longer a great power and is not taken seriously by the USA and the West. With the invasion, Putin is once again laying claim to world power. However, the war will further weaken Russia and its international role. The historian Qin Hui (Qinghua University) is of the opinion that Putin wants to rebuild his empire and is acting as a ‘new tsar’ while also seeking to divert attention from domestic problems. In essence, his war had already begun with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The more Russia becomes a pariah state, the more costly it is to support Putin in view of Western sanctions and the negative impact on China’s global reputation. Russia expert Jin Yan (Chinese University of Politics and Law) sees an imperial logic in Russia’s actions, reminiscent of Russian policy during the Tsarist Empire.

Other scholars, such as Hu Wei, chairman of the Public Policy Research Center in Shanghai, advise the Chinese government to distance itself from Russia. The war has strengthened the international leadership role of the US and the danger of China’s isolation is growing. China is the only power that could set limits to Putin’s actions, and China could and should take advantage of this. Wang Huiyao, president of the think tank ‘Center for China and Globalization’, wrote in turn that China is not interested in an anti-Western alliance with Russia, but more in stabilising its relations with the USA and other Western countries.

Indeed, China cannot be interested in a further escalation of the war, especially since it has led to a closing of ranks between the EU and the USA and to greater agreement among EU states, and has negative effects on the Silk Road project and on Chinese foreign trade. However, China also fears Russia’s decline and the consequences for China. The political leadership believes that ‘if the West crushes Russia, China will be the next target’.

The relationship between Russia and China is, by and large, an alliance of convenience to contain US global influence. China sees the US as its main challenger, not Russia. Moreover, the relationship is markedly asymmetrical: China is no longer Moscow’s junior partner (as it was in the 1950s), but its senior partner. Russia’s dependence on China is considerably greater than vice versa. At most, Russia is seen as a partner against the US dominance challenging China. For Beijing, on the other hand, the US and the EU remain economically more important: Russia’s economic output is only one-tenth that of China’s. Russia’s GDP is barely equal to that of a Chinese province like Guangdong. Moreover, there are conflicts of interest between the two, e.g. with regard to their influence in the countries of Central Asia.

In addition, there was always a culture of mutual mistrust between China and Russia. By equating China with Russia and Xi with Putin, however, the West is not only gambling away the chances of international cooperation with China, but is also fuelling the geopolitical conflict. In April, Xi proposed a ‘Global Security Initiative’ to discuss a solution to global issues such as war and peace, violation of the sovereignty of states, and bloc and Cold War thinking, and to create a new global security architecture within the framework of the UN Charter. This signals China’s willingness to engage in dialogue on global issues, but this would first require the USA and China to agree on mutual red lines and fundamental issues of conflict; there also needs to be a willingness to compromise on both sides.

Books&Ideas: Another topic that you have been extensively working on is national minorities in China. Back in 1989, you published China and Its National Minorities: Autonomy or Assimilation? (New York: Armonk, 1989). Recently, you again returned to this issue in a book chapter ‘Ethnicity in China’ (In: Routledge Handbook of Race and Ethnicity in Asia, edited by Michael Weiner. London and New York (Routledge) 2022: 183–200). This leads me to the urgent question of Xinjiang. What is the background to the current nationalities policy in China? In Europe, China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang is regarded as suppression of human rights, a crime against humanity and even as genocide. How would you explain the current situation in Xinjiang?

Thomas Heberer: Without a doubt, the Xinjiang photos and documents are horrifying. Adrian Zenz, who published the documents, talks about three different types of camps: firstly, those where people suspected of terrorism or alleged to be close to it are held; secondly, those where, on the basis of military discipline, younger people have to learn Han Chinese (the country’s standard language) under state supervision and undergo a kind of educational training; and thirdly, company-run centres where the same goals are to be achieved. In the latter case, these companies are subsidised by the state and have to employ the trained people afterwards. In the second and third cases, many of those held in the camps are younger people from poverty-stricken areas who are destined to work in industry or mechanised agriculture. The reason given for this is, according to the Chinese government, that it had not yet been possible to minimise poverty in the poor southern part of Xinjiang since the local population was unwilling to leave their homes to work outside the region and preferred to keep to their traditional life.

Hardly anyone has analysed the background and the rationale behind the state’s actions. I mean, apart from the fight against terrorist Islamist-Panturkist organisations that carried out countless attacks in Xinjiang and the rest of China in the 2000s, the precarious security situation in the region, the partial failure of the government’s poverty alleviation policies and the increasing distance of Islamic-influenced local cultures from the rest of China led to a strong sense of threat within the Han population and the Chinese government. However, none of this justifies the drastic measures taken by the state and the associated human rights violations.

At the same time, this change in nationality policy has a historical component. So, back to one of your questions on the background and current logic of nationality policy, which began to change about 10 years ago: this change has to do with the government’s conviction that the integration of ethnic minorities into the majority society in many regions had not succeeded; rather, it had spawned a greater degree of ethnicity.

Endeavours to integrate non-Han ethnicities into the Han culture existed throughout Chinese history. Imperial dynasties reasoned that non-Han people were uncivilised and required ‘guidance’ and civilising by the Han who, it was thought, possessed a superior culture. Accordingly, Liang Qichao (1873-1929), one of the most prominent Chinese intellectuals in the early 20th century, regarded assimilating ethnic minorities as an indispensable part of China’s nation-building process, in which the Han could display their ‘assimilative power’. Liang referred to the ‘civilising mission’ of the Han towards other ethnic groups. This view has subsequently dominated Chinese national discourses on ethnicity. Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek held similar views. Mao, in contrast, distanced himself from this idea and repeatedly warned against ‘Great Han chauvinism’ in the various political campaigns against ‘local nationalism’ in the second half of the 1950s and the ‘Cultural Revolution’, for example. Nevertheless, he pursued similar goals. The idea of an ‘assimilating power’ has become fundamental to the ‘second generation of ethnic policies’ during Xi’s incumbency.

Concerning the civilising of ethnic minorities in China, anthropologist Stevan Harrell, for instance, speaks of a ‘civilising mission’ by means of which peripheral peoples’ civilisation should be elevated to the level of the Han. The basic idea of traditional Chinese policies towards ethnic minorities was the Chinese state’s conviction that these minorities could change their status from ‘uncivilised’ to ‘civilised’ by achieving greater proximity to the centre of civilisation and therefore the prevailing civilisational ideology, a principle that has not changed much during the course of Chinese history.

After 2010, a major shift in the institutional form of the state concept occurred in China: from a ‘multinational state’ to a ‘unified community of the Chinese nation’. Stronger integration of ethnic minorities into the ‘unique Chinese state’, e.g. by enforcing Mandarin Chinese as the ‘national language’, downgrading both regional autonomy and the use of minority languages, and a stronger convergence of customs, habits and development programmes are part and parcel of the new concept of accelerating state- and nation-building.

Nation-building is usually only successful when an integrative ideology exists that gives rise to a nationalism related to all people living on a national territory irrespective of their ethnicity or religious belief. According to the Chinese leadership, as long as Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongols, etc. see themselves as Uyghurs, Tibetans or Mongols only, not as Chinese citizens, the nation-building process remains unfinished. The crux of the nation-building question is whether a cross-ethnicity, i.e. a national identity, is emerging. As long as the primary identity and loyalty lie with the ethnic group and remain subordinate to national identity, the nation-state remains precarious. In the end, a successful nation-building process is thus also a crucial part of reinforcing a country’s national security. But, again, none of these issues justifies this treatment of so many Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.

Books&Ideas: In the Western media, China is often referred to as rapidly emerging digital authoritarianism with a social credit system as a tool of digital control of its population. In contrast, in your recent online publication ‘Disciplining of a Society: Social Disciplining and Civilizing Processes in Contemporary China’ (Cambridge/Mass.: Harvard University, Kennedy School, Ash Center Publication, 2020), you claim that the social credit system is, rather, a disciplining instrument that the party-state employs to modernise Chinese society. Could you elaborate more on this ‘state-led modernising by discipline’?

Thomas Heberer : In 2014, the State Council of the PRC adopted an action plan to establish a ‘social trust system’, described in Western parlance as a social credit system. This system should be implemented by 2020. Basically, the translation of the Chinese term xinyong as ‘credit’ is not accurate. Rather, it means ‘trustworthiness’. A literal translation would actually be ‘social trustworthiness system’, which seems to be more accurate, at least in terms of the officially described intention.

The objective of this system is supposedly to create a ‘culture of sincerity, honesty and trust’ within China’s society or at least to increase its level. The necessity is based on the Chinese leadership’s conviction that there is a massive loss of trust within society, a decline of civilised behaviour and, in the end, a moral crisis. In addition, there is a markedly low inclination on the part of the public to follow rules, norms and laws, as well as a low level of legal awareness and a high level of corruption and social scandals. Against this background, a Chinese social scientist has stated that there are a large number of laws, but there is a lack of a functioning social order. Thus, the state should act more as a disciplining and civilising entity. It should educate citizens to behave honestly and in a moral way, and it should create institutions whose leaders are socially minded, according to the action plan.

A Chinese scholar told me in an interview that China needs a society in which people no longer violate rules and norms. The first step, he argued, is to make them afraid to violate these rules, norms and laws. This is similar to the conviction of the ancient Legalist school that sanctioning violations of norms or laws by means of deterrence and harsh punishments was the only successful way to preserve social and political stability. The Legalist impact on Chinese rulers during history and until today was and is still very strong. This social credit system is seen less as a legal project but rather as a confidence-building and social engineering programme by the government. The decision to introduce the social credit system was primarily justified by the decline of social morality and internal social trust and hence by the need to construct a new morality by means of this system.

At present, the social credit system is not a uniform system with uniform goals, standards, regulations and databases. It is currently being implemented at only a few dozen pilot locations, with different objectives and priorities. In some cases, there are very different regulations in different places and provinces, as well as significant differences between urban and rural areas, large cities and small towns. In principle, it is an incentive and deterrent system. The primary purpose is to discipline the behaviour of citizens, but also of civil servants and companies, and to regulate the market. It is thus aimed at companies, individuals and public authorities, although it is worth mentioning that a separate evaluation system has already existed for public officials for decades.
On the one hand, negative points are to be recorded; on the other hand, the points account can be improved through good conduct. In the course of fulfilling their duties, public authorities can review the data of persons who come to their notice. Those who violate a particularly large number of rules, norms and legal regulations can be put on a ‘black list’, which, depending on the facts and the severity of the misconduct, can lead to exclusion from access to credit, flight and train tickets, passports for travelling abroad, etc. Anyone who fails to pay debts, fines, penalties or court costs, is in arrears with payments, does not comply with the law or fails to meet legal obligations should expect points deductions and other sanctions. This is also the case for companies that cheat, distort competition, circulate substandard products or violate labour laws, as well as for tax evaders and persons who commit other criminal offences. An official government report published in early 2019 notes that in 2018 alone, 17.46 million airline ticket sales and 5.4 million high-speed train ticket sales were denied.

Mechanisms for monitoring and disciplining the population played and still play a specific role in China’s political culture and history. Perhaps this experience in the collective historical memory is also one of the reasons why there do not seem to be any major misgivings about the social credit system, which is generally only encountered by people involved in behaviour that violates rules and norms.

However, the social credit system raises a number of fundamental questions: Who determines what a good citizen is? What’s the underlying image of humanity? Is there any form of transparency in its control and use? Who oversees cases of data misuse? What legal remedies are available to individuals or groups in such cases? What can those affected do about registration errors or injustices, and how can they appeal? The core question is ultimately one of control and use of the collected data to prevent a kind of technological totalitarianism. Even if this is not the intention at present, the question is whether these mechanisms will also be used for political and thought control to a far greater extent in the future. The news reaching us from Xinjiang and the extensive control of the thoughts and behaviour of ethnic minorities there illustrate the extent to which such a system of control and surveillance can evolve. Even within China, there are concerns about the extensive collection, storage and use of data, and about the lack of adequate security, although few are openly expressing this at the moment.

The political leadership has meanwhile recognised the problems involved. In November 2020, a meeting of the State Council’s Executive Committee summarised experiences with the social credit system since 2014 and mapped its further development. Prime Minister Li Keqiang spoke openly about the problems and identified and analysed the measures to be taken. The social credit system – according to Li – was still in its initial and exploratory stage. Further laws, regulation and standardisation were necessary to ensure the protection of rights and interests. In addition, it should be clarified which items and information should be included in the system and which should not, and which kind of behaviour and offences should be penalised or not. Current regulations, specifically local ones, were too broad, general and arbitrary. Offences should be clearly defined, and it should be determined in detail which violations and modes of behaviour should be punished. Only serious cases should be made public, and rules relating to self-correction, rectification and compensation should be worked out. Information security and personal privacy should be widely guaranteed. The legal rights of firms and individuals should in any case be protected (Li 2020, Zichen Wang 2020). Different agencies were reliant on the development of new criteria and regulations for entry and removal from blacklisting and its consequences (see Daum 2021).
In sum, the social credit system is not only a tool of surveillance. Its primary purpose is to steer people to become morally sound citizens so as to reinforce the social and political order.

Books&Ideas: Your most recent publication ‘City Diplomacy and the Role of German-Chinese City Partnerships: Current situation and future perspectives. Focus on North Rhine-Westphalia’ (In: Urban Diplomacy in the 2020s: More than a Tale of Two Cities. City Diplomacy and Municipal Partnership between Germany, Europe and China – Implications for North Rhine-Westphalia. Working Papers on East Asian Studies, No. 133. Duisburg-Essen University, 2022) examines urban diplomacy and twin city partnership between China and Germany. Do you think city partnerships are a possible solution for maintaining EU-China cooperation in the context of increasingly tense global politics?

Thomas Heberer: In contrast to the national level, subnational diplomacy is intended to contribute to bilateral relations with the countries concerned and to the internationalisation of cities and their inhabitants. At the local or communal level, regional and local interests and the solution of municipal problems are in the foreground, not the implementation of nationwide policies or national interests.

Town twinning came into being in Europe after the Second World War with the aim of using municipal contacts to bring people from the countries occupied by Germany during the Second World War closer together, to overcome resentment and mistrust and to build trust, as a contribution to reconciliation between the peoples of Europe. Later, partnerships were formed with the aim of strengthening European identity and integration or in order to pursue development cooperation with cities in developing countries. At the same time, municipal partnerships were – and still are – seen as a contribution to international understanding and the elimination of prejudices, even beyond the borders of Europe.

In the meantime, the focus of town twinning has shifted to establishing city networks on issues relating to the urban future, such as urban cooperation on climate protection, sustainable urban development, and digitisation. The term ‘city networks’ refers to an alliance of several cities that meet periodically to discuss issues of common interest or work on joint initiatives. The aim is to cooperate in a specific policy field (e.g. mitigating the effects of climate change) and share relevant experience.

Especially when it comes to climate change, cities can act directly, for example by designing climate-friendly local transport or housing, setting up pedestrian zones, greening, promoting the use of bicycles or sustainable conversion of port facilities, and much more. Meanwhile, government are trying to integrate the advantages of municipal networks into their foreign policy. Even the United Nations now emphasises the contribution made by cities to tackling global challenges, such as climate change and sustainable urban development. There are over 300 city alliances worldwide focusing on climate change and energy issues.

Shared local problems and their solutions can usually be discussed more constructively at the municipal level, in contrast to ‘big issues’ such as human rights, intergovernmental problems, or dealing with minorities or system critics, especially since the municipal level has no influence on such issues anyway and abstract discussions tend to cause irritation on both sides. So it is important not to always emphasise the differences among partners, but to continuously search for commonalities across systems and cultures in order to build a basis for equal partnership and mutual trust. Unlike at the intergovernmental level, ideological and systemic antagonisms are much less relevant at the municipal level. The focus here is on common challenges and interests, on pragmatic, cooperative ways of dealing with problems faced by the participating cities, on the sharing of knowledge and experience, and on mutual support. Information-sharing and online or in-person dialogue forums are central platforms of city diplomacy.

In this kind of dialogue, German municipalities can share their experiences, but also learn from other cities’ ‘best practices’, e.g. in the use of e-vehicles in local public transport or in traffic management. Cultural exchange is also important, with the aim of enhancing understanding, fostering transcultural dialogue and building trust. Cultural exchange and cultural relations not only promote mutual understanding, but should also be seen as a sign of cultural respect towards the partner cities.

Books&Ideas: In March 2022, two German scholars, Gunter Schubert and Björn Alpermann, published an open letter titled ‘An Argument Against Moral Crusading’ ( Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , March 9, 2022, p. N4.) in which they argued against a growing trend of moral purism regarding Chinese studies and for keeping avenues to conduct empirical research in China open. The authors conclude that ‘genuine China research needs differences of opinions. Polarisation will only make it blind, shallow, and, ultimately, obsolete’. Do you agree that there is a polarisation and lack of diverse opinions in today’s China studies and how does it affect how research on China is conducted?

Thomas Heberer: Currently, China does not have a positive image in Europe or Germany. This is mainly due to the country’s rise as a world power and the associated domestic and foreign policy frictions and tensions, as well as a robust and rather challenging assertion of interests regionally and globally. In this context, the observable urge to reshape the policy course towards China is now also coming to a head in a field that until now seemed to be largely untouched by political disputes: the field of academic/scientific cooperation. It is clear that this problem is also reflected within China-related fields. Is China a rogue state that should publicly pilloried as such? Should scholars working on contemporary China continue to cooperate with Chinese colleagues or not, and should they conduct on-site research there, even under difficult conditions?

Hardly anyone disputes that China is developing into a world power and is a key player internationally that we can neither isolate nor exclude. Major global problems such as the impacts of climate change and their mitigation, dealing with pandemics, migration processes, food issues, energy supply and water scarcity cannot be solved without involving China. Cooperation with China and its heterogeneous and complex structures requires basic historical, cultural, political and geopolitical knowledge in order to be able to classify and understand this country, its people, its political rationale, goals and geostrategic priorities. So yes, we do need to conduct research in this country and cooperate with Chinese scholars.

Why were Western social scientists unable to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union? Because it was not possible to do fieldwork there or conduct research in different regions. Field research in China has greatly enriched our knowledge about China, its people, its internal disparities and contradictions. With regard to the Soviet Union, we had to rely on ‘Kremlin astrology’, the analysis of official documents that ultimately did not reflect the real situation in that country.

Opponents of further cooperation between European and Chinese scholars argue that Chinese research institutions as a whole are run and controlled by the ‘Communist Party’, and that research in China is only possible if a Western scientist agrees to make concessions to the CP. In the current increasingly polarised debate, some aspects are particularly striking. First, the European debate often fails to distinguish between the Chinese state on the one hand and scholars and universities on the other. Western logic often argues that since ‘everything’ in China is under the control of the party state, ultimately all Chinese, including universities, scholars and students, should be regarded as ‘propagandists’ or even potential Communist Party ‘spies’: a kind of ‘racial profiling’. Chinese academics and students are quite critical of Chinese politics, but are increasingly distrusted in Europe precisely because they are Chinese. In fact, the world needs the Chinese academic community, and the latter needs cooperation with Western colleagues.

Furthermore, significant differences exist between individual universities in China. This is related, among other things, to the political culture in different regions, with those provinces and universities with extensive external cooperative relationships usually proving to be more open than those in central or western China. Long-standing and close cooperative relationships with Chinese universities and with individual scientists, through which trust has been built and which are therefore more stable, are generally more productive.

It should also be understood that many Chinese scientists are proud of what their country has achieved in recent decades, including in the scientific field, and are making this known. Not to take this seriously, or to deny through general suspicion or a boycott that Chinese colleagues also have an intrinsic interest in research and knowledge creation and are capable of asserting this against resistance, would be presumptuous and detrimental to cooperation opportunities. At the same time, it is necessary to foster general China-relevant skills in all branches of science and research, not only with regard to China-related fields of study, but in all disciplines. In the future, we will also need engineers, physicians, natural scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars who are familiar with the relevant fields in China and who are also – but not only – proficient in the Chinese language.

What is currently disturbing is that European politicians are requesting more academic expertise on China but that at the same time the number of students choosing a China-related course of study or learning the Chinese language has declined significantly, precisely at a time when, due to China’s increasing importance in the world, more knowledge, curiosity and expertise on China are needed. It should be a concern of science policy and society to explore the reasons for the lack of interest and to create conditions that make Chinese-related studies, or at least Chinese language acquisition, more attractive again. In addition, we should build new China competence networks at the European level and ultimately strengthen the transfer of China-related knowledge into society. Only in this way is an informed and productive exchange possible. Dismantling cooperation in the field of science and research would make it more difficult for German and European academics to access China; it would also undermine opportunities to improve our understanding of this complicated and complex country.

Dossier's Articles

by Anna Shpakovskaya, 19 October 2022

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Anna Shpakovskaya, « The Second World Power and its Social Complexity. An interview with Thomas Heberer », Books and Ideas , 19 October 2022. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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