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University of Basel

“China’s party-state is deliberately trying to subvert the West.”

Interview: Urs Hafner

China is politically more communist than it was 20 years ago. The country is converging with authoritarian move ments in the West, says Professor Ralph Weber, a political scientist and philosopher.

Prof. Dr. Ralph Weber. (Photo: Basile Bornand)
Prof. Dr. Ralph Weber. (Photo: Basile Bornand)

UNI NOVA: Professor Weber, the West thrives on having an enemy far away. Is China the 21st-century successor to the Soviet Union, which itself took the place of the Ottoman Empire during the last century?

RALPH WEBER: No, I don’t think so. The West had hardly any economic ties to the Soviet Union, whereas China is its most important trading partner. And we are dealing with at least two Chinas. One is the traditional, imperial and – to Western eyes – “exotic“ China, with its deep historical roots. The other China – the People’s Republic, under the dictatorship of the Marxist-Leninist-oriented party – starts with the communist revolution in 1949.

UNI NOVA: Isn’t that authoritarian China just a continuation of the old empire?

WEBER: Some people see it that way, with Xi Jinping, the President and – more importantly – the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, as the emperor with the “mandate of heaven”. It is true that Xi sometimes refers to Taoism and cites Confucius, but he only ever does so, of course, when it is consistent with the party’s ideology. The party stands above the state. It is the party that decides whom to admit and whom to exclude. If someone turns down the invitation to join, it is virtually impossible for them to pursue a career. And the party continues to wage campaigns against corruption and the influence of Western education, or, as they say in the jargon, to “improve the quality of citizens”. Citizens are to align themselves with the thought of Xi Jinping. In short, I don’t think that comparisons with the empire are helpful.

UNI NOVA: Marxist-Leninist communism envisaged a rational planned economy that produces what people really need. China, on the other hand, runs a hypercapitalist economy. How can the two be reconciled?

WEBER: China is state-capitalist. Many businesses belong to the state. But even the state-sanctioned private sector is controlled. If you want to succeed in business, you have to be a party member. Foreign firms must accept the presence of party members within their Chinese branches. The distinction between “public” and “private” as we know it does not exist in China. In the early 2000s, it looked like China was going to liberalize its economy, both domestically and in relation to the wider world. In the West, there were hopes that this would lead to political reforms, in line with the slogan “change through trade”. Today, China is economically more capitalist, but politically more communist, than it was 20 years ago. There has been too little recognition of that in the West, including Switzerland. Under its free trade agreement, Switzerland is pursuing more intensive economic relations with China than ever, while all too often choosing to ignore the human rights issue. That’s not ok.

UNI NOVA: You use harsh words to describe Chinese policy, but there are many dictatorships in this world. The US practices capital punishment, and has a culture steeped in racism and an extremely sexist president. Switzerland also has a trading relationship with the US. Shouldn’t it stand up for human rights there, too?

WEBER: The US also still runs Guantanamo… What you are doing is what I call arguing away the difference in values here. Although criticism can be justifiably leveled at the USA, it is still a liberal democratic state with separation of powers, elections and a relatively independent media that can criticize those in political power. China, on the other hand, is ruled by a party that controls all parts of the media and bans words like “separation of powers” and “civil society”.

UNI NOVA: China isn’t a Western state, and historically its culture was not “democratic”. Aren’t you applying an unreasonable standard?

WEBER: Human rights are not negotiable, nor can they be watered down for pragmatic reasons. Period. When human rights are abused, that should bring discredit not on the idea of human rights, but on those who abuse them. Communism, especially Mao’s “great leap forward” and the Cultural Revolution, constitutes a huge rupture in Chinese history. Those events, and others that have happened more recently in the People’s Republic of China, cannot be explained in terms of “culture”. There is a reason why the Cultural Revolution is such a taboo subject in China. It is a national trauma…

UNI NOVA: And something that Switzerland should factor into its trade relationships?

WEBER: Not the trauma – the human rights. For historical reasons, Switzerland has a particular responsibility here. It was also the first Western state to recognize the People’s Republic of China, as the Federal Council is so keen to stress. It is kind of an outrider within the Western camp.

UNI NOVA: Anti-communist Switzerland smoothed communist China’s path to the West. How did that come about?

WEBER: Neutrality and established practice certainly played a role: Switzerland recognizes a state as soon as it has established itself. The Federal Council also wanted to protect the Swiss businesspeople who were based there, mainly in Shanghai, as well as missionaries. We must not forget that Swiss businesses have been trading with China since at least the 18th century. It started with the watch and clock trade. Later, they were followed by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Today, many businesses are actually dependent on the Chinese market.

UNI NOVA: So what should Switzerland do?

WEBER: I’m not going to say what policy Switzerland should pursue. I’m an academic who is trying to contribute some expertise and arguments to discussion of this issue within society. But in a democracy, as we know, the power to make decisions rests with the sovereign, the courts, parliament and so on. According to my analysis, China is building up its influence systematically within the UN, as well as in individual European countries. And putting systematic pressure on multilateralism by concluding special agreements with a large number of states that serve its interests. The party-state is deliberately trying to subvert the West. Small states like Switzerland should seek to combat that by strengthening their alliances with other states or the EU, by supporting the UN – in defense of human rights, democracy and the rule of law – and by upholding academic freedom. Multilateralism is coming under pressure from China. If we see it as something worth preserving, we have to resist that pressure. Small states benefit from multilateralism.

UNI NOVA: China is infiltrating the West. That sounds like a conspiracy theory.

WEBER: That’s the kind of argument that shuts down debate and stops us having a nuanced discussion of the issue. I’m not saying that “totalitarian” China wants to subjugate the “free West”. On the one hand, there is more than one China, and we have to differentiate between the people and the party. Many Chinese think that, with his cult of personality or his abolition of term limits, Xi Jinping is going too far. There is definitely criticism – although it is seldom voiced publicly, of course – not just of that, but of how he has dealt with Hong Kong, the Covid-19 pandemic or the trade war with the US, which has been damaging for China. On the other hand, the West is not just a group of free countries committed to the rule of law. For a number of years, authoritarianism has been on the rise once again within liberal democracies: Trump, Hungary, Poland, the Front National in France, the AfD in Germany and so on. If democracy matters to us, we must resist this temptation. The authoritarian movements in the West and authoritarian China are forging links with one another. The Chinese Communist Party sneers at multiculturalism and the effete liberal democracies that cannot control their populations and their borders. There are overlapping agendas here. And the coronavirus crisis seems to confirm what the authoritarians have been saying. By taking draconian measures, hasn’t China been able to bring the virus under control?

UNI NOVA: Most authoritarians are coronavirus denialists.

WEBER: I’m not claiming that there is a simple dichotomy here. Norway’s rightwing party is working with the Chinese. Sweden’s right-wing party is pushing for the Chinese ambassador to be expelled from the country.

UNI NOVA: I’m not claiming that there is a simple dichotomy here. Norway’s rightwing party is working with the Chinese. Sweden’s right-wing party is pushing for the Chinese ambassador to be expelled from the country.

WEBER: In 2017 and 2018, the Federal Council stated that the human rights situation in China had deteriorated, but in 2019 Federal President Ueli Maurer told Swiss journalists in Beijing that he didn’t know whether the human rights situation had deteriorated… Yet it is common knowledge that in recent years thousands of people, including many human rights lawyers, have disappeared without trace in China – not to mention the shocking oppression of the Uighurs and Tibetans.

UNI NOVA: The Tibet issue seems to have disappeared from public discussion in Switzerland, doesn't it?

WEBER: 1999 was a milestone as regards the Tibet issue and Switzerland’s relationship with China. At that time, there was a kind of thaw in relations. China was on its way to joining the WTO, and the West was hoping that economic reforms would lead to reforms in the political sphere. And then President Jiang Zemin visited Switzerland. He was welcomed by the entire Federal Council in Berne. Then a row blew up. At the edge of the Bundesplatz, some activists were demonstrating against China’s policy in Tibet. This made Jiang Zemin so angry that he snapped at the Federal President Ruth Dreifuss, “You have lost a good friend.”

UNI NOVA: Although that didn’t happen.

WEBER: Indeed. When Xi Jinping visited Switzerland in 2017, the police made sure that those demonstrating about Tibet were kept out of sight and earshot. Instead we had government supporters brought in by the Chinese embassy, waving little Chinese flags. Although the so-called United Front, which includes the Chinese student associations, is not well-known in Switzerland, it is a tool heavily used by the Chinese party-state.

UNI NOVA: Speaking of the United Front, wasn’t the Comintern – that is to say, the Communist International – dissolved a long time ago?

WEBER: The Comintern, yes, but not the principle behind it, which China continues to apply today in its own way. Its United Front is extremely active, in many guises and across the world, including in Switzerland. We also know that Chinese authorities based overseas make contact with their citizens to demand that they co-operate or – in the case of Tibetans and Uighurs – to intimidate them with reference to family members still in China. When the Dalai Lama makes an appearance in the United States, Chinese students insist on staging a “counter-demonstration”, citing freedom of expression. Fudan University, on the other hand, has dropped the phrase “academic freedom” from its statutes and replaced it with “loyalty to the thought of Xi Jinping”. Is normal co-operation still possible under these conditions? I think not. However, anyone who criticizes the Chinese partystate is opening themselves up to attack. In the West you will quickly be labeled “anti-Chinese” or “racist”. Not only is that absurd from a factual standpoint, but it is an argument that echoes the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to represent the interests of the whole Chinese people.

UNI NOVA: Although racism against Chinese people is widespread.

WEBER: Certainly, and to some extent the coronavirus made it even worse. That is unacceptable. Nonetheless, we must be able to discuss the threat to liberal democracy, with its commitment to the rule of law. But that is something we are poorly equipped to do. There is a lack of basic knowledge within society, as well as academic expertise. We have to develop new epistemological approaches to the study of global actors and networks.

UNI NOVA: But a large number of universities in German-speaking countries already offer degree courses in Chinese studies, don’t they?

WEBER: In Switzerland, the main ones are Zurich and Geneva. But we have far too few Sinologists. What is more, for understandable reasons, these disciplines often choose “culturalist” approaches – that is to say, they exclude the power issue. In political science, too, we have paid insufficient attention to authoritarianism. Over recent decades, we have worked through every possible variant of democracy. However, our understanding of authoritarian regimes, which are gaining ground across the world, is still too limited.


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