Is it time for the West to withdraw from China? With Beijing flexing its muscles, media exec Mathias Döpfner and diplomat Kishore Mahbubani debate the right way forward.
It is one of the major questions of our times: What would the world look like if the top spot was no longer occupied by a hegemonial democracy but by a single-party dictatorship that uses its economic power for political intimidation? China’s Communist Party has been trying for quite some time to force countries, companies and journalists to behave as Beijing would like. Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the aggressive character of President Xi Jinping’s government has grown more apparent. A recent example was the decision by the 27 ambassadors from the EU to succumb to Communist Party pressure and remove a reference in a recent op-ed for the newspaper China Daily to the fact that coronavirus got its start in China.
Here, we present a debate between two of the most interesting voices in the discussion over how the West should approach the rising superpower of China.
Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the German media giant Axel Springer, believes that Europe must take a radical step to guarantee its freedom and independence. “Together with the US, Germany and Europe should make the decision to decouple from China,” he wrote in the Springer weekly Welt am Sonntag in early May. In other words, trade ties should be cut. Because China could take advantage of the recession triggered by the corona pandemic to buy up key European industries, nothing less is at stake than “our societal model and view of humanity,” Döpfner wrote.
Kishore Mahbubani, the former Singaporean diplomat and author, disagrees, warning that if the West were to pursue such a “decoupling,” it would represent an additional destructive misstep in relations with China. The first, he argues, was the “hubris” to believe that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the victory of liberal democracy. The second colossal mistake, Mahbubani writes in his recently published book, Has China Won? is the belief that the West could emerge victorious from a conflict with China. The new rivalry, he argues, is not a new episode in the Cold War: This time, the U.S. could lose. Today, it is America that is suffering from ideological calcification and facing a systemic crisis: “America is behaving like the Soviet Union and China is behaving like America.”
The debate took place via a video conference call between Singapore, Berlin, Beijing and Hamburg.
MATHIAS DÖPFNER : 47, is CEO of Axel Springer and president of the German Newspaper Publishers Association. A devoted trans-Atlanticist, Döpfner argues that the alliance with the U.S. should be deepened, even in difficult times.
KISHORE MAHBUBANI : 71, is a philosopher and former diplomat from Singapore who has been called the “muse of the Asian century.” He served as his country’s ambassador to the United Nations for several years and was president of the Security Council in 2001-2002.
DIE ZEIT: Professor Mahbubani, in the past several decades, the West has engaged closely with China, hoping both for mutual benefits and that democracy would take root in China. That’s not how things have turned out, however. China’s rise has contributed to growing inequality in Western countries, and its authoritarian model has even found admirers in some democracies today. Was it foolish for the West to build close ties with China?
Kishore Mahbubani: Absolutely not. The surprising thing about the West’s disappointment is that it has actually succeeded in many of its critical goals with China. When the United States emerged as a great power in the late 19th century, guess what? They soon started wars. China is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council which hasn’t fought a war in 40 years. The peaceful reemergence is one of the greatest success stories of contemporary human history.
Döpfner: Growing economic dependency on China will lead to more political influence for Beijing. When the CEO of Daimler has to apologize twice to the Chinese government because of a harmless Dalai Lama quote in an advertisement on Instagram, this gives you a hint of what’s coming. And when the video conference company Zoom is censoring China-critical accounts, that is the ultimate proof.
Mahbubani: I think when future historians look back, they’ll be puzzled by the Western expectation that a country like China, with 4,000 years of political history, could be changed by a country like the US, with a history of fewer than 250 years. The assumption that the rest of the world will, over time, become just like the West is arrogant.
Döpfner: It isn’t arrogant to distinguish between free and unfree societies. It seems that you put democracy and dictatorship on the same moral level.
Mahbubani: I would say, let everybody live the way they want to.
Döpfner: Really? What does that mean in concrete terms? Let me give you an example: If you google “idiot” in the US, one of the first search results is Donald Trump. In China, the search term “Winnie the Pooh” is censored because Xi Jinping looks similar to that cartoon bear. Isn’t that a very telling symbol for the asymmetry between the West and China?
Mahbubani: But freedom has grown in China. When I first went to China in 1980, people had to wear Maoist uniforms, they couldn’t choose where to live or work. Today they can, and they may even travel freely. If China was a kind of dark, oppressive Gulag system, why should 130 million Chinese tourists return there voluntarily every year? Chinese people respect and support their government system, because in the hundred years of humiliation from 1842 to 1945, the West trampled on their country. And now that China is strong, you come and ask why don’t you change your government?
Döpfner: Where is the promised change through trade politically? What about the values of freedom, the rule of law and human rights? Just look at the social credit system in China. Or the fact that people with opposing views are disappearing or being put into jail. Or the camps for members of the Uighur minority. Yes, China’s growth is an incredible success story. But the price of authoritarianism that the Chinese society has had to pay is high. One thing is clear to me: That model should not be imported to Europe. I want to live a free life in an open society.
Mahbubani: I can assure you Mathias, that the Chinese will not take away your free lifestyle in an open society.
Döpfner: Ask the activist Joshua Wong from Hong Kong: He would say China has taken away his freedom. Chinese encroachment will spread step by step from Hong Kong to other countries.