Germany´s government is "disappointed" about the alleged data theft by Chinese organisations. So is the country´s leading news magazine, Der Spiegel, as it seems. Also in its today´s online publication: German carmakers start to complain about "copies".
If all this doesn´t sound new to you, you are probably no German national. To date, China had a rather good press in Germany. Yes, it is time to rid ourselves of some illusions. But it is wrong to indulge in stereotyping, or nationalism.
Der Spiegel is not just another news magazine. It is traditionally the German weekly magazine. This week, it carries an unusual title illustration. No wonder I had to go to two shops before getting a copy of it, this evening. It seems to sell. I´m not going to say which connotations it inspires in me. Maybe I´m just a very bad man, and the title is really innocent. Please take a look here. (By the way, the headline above the image says "The Yellow Spies" – possibly a derivation of the classical "yellow peril", and a try to be funny.)
The German government will have to find ways to protect its data against spying activities, if it really wants to cut the losses. It will also have to find ways to make German companies to protect their know-how better than up to now. After all, industrial know-how is based on the work of educated people, and education is to a great deal financed with tax-payers´ money. But these are issues between the German state, and German companies. No one should wait until China is ready for meaningful, substantial cooperation on this matter. Besides, China is not the only country that spies on others. Its authorities, companies and individuals only seem to cooperate better in spying, than those of other countries.
Belief in our own poetry
Of course, "we" do business with China because it helps "to make China more prosperous, more open and more democratic", right? Talk with business people on a plane to the Middle Kingdom, mention the human rights issue, and you are likely to hear this kind of argument.
There is general use of such euphemisms. But normally, there seems to be a tacit understanding that everyone wants to make some bucks in the first place. In case of Germans, I´m not so sure. Many of us seem to believe in their own poetry. And once they do that, they believe in Chinese poetry, too. The latter can be particularly colourful. It is about "mutual benefit" when talking about trade, and "marriages arranged in heaven" when establishing joint ventures between Chinese and foreign companies. As for the mutual benefit, it should go without saying that each side has to make sure about its own benefit. And most successful CEOs, when marrying, will arrange marriage contracts with their wives or husbands. Real marriage as we know it is supposed to last longer than their staff membership with their company, and you can be pretty sure that they won´t leave as much to heaven´s plans as they often do in business. At joint ventures, things only have to work fine for the duration of a CEO´s tenure. As far as I can see, a Western CEO tends to focus on short-term advantages, more than his or her Chinese counterparts.
Criticism almost a taboo
For decades, criticising China was almost a taboo in German business and politics. There were probably several reasons for that. One was political correctness. To suspect, for example, that Chinese students could be spying for their motherland, as the BBC reported more than two years ago, would have been at least very controversial in Germany. It wouldn´t have been politically correct. It could have sounded like if all Chinese students studying in Germany were put under general suspicion. Der Spiegel has now made it a topic of its printed edition.
Another motivation to shut up was the fear to "lose business" by angering Peking. This is understandable, when it is a company. But politicians should not be equally afraid. Christopher Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, describes it this way: "The Chinese government believes that all it has to do is to crack the whip – threaten a blocked order here, a purchase from a rival there... and we will all jump back into line. And by and large we actually do.".
China is important, but not a "Must" for everyone
Germany hasn´t lost know-how to China voluntarily. But many losses were unavoidable consequences of unwise decisions for the sake of short term gains. Such losses have been a consequence of naiveté, too – in more than one manner.
One of the real goofy slogans of the past decades went like this: "If you don´t make it in China, you will make it nowhere."
That slogan is mere religion. Not every successful Western company has had a big stake in China. And many companies who do have business in China, are having a hard and lossy time of it. A judicious company doesn´t practice religion. It makes decisions based on what it can win or lose in the country or branch in question.
Here is another stupid one: "We trust our Chinese partners."
You can say this. In a situation, where the Chinese side has as much to win or lose as you, one might even believe this. But in general, foreigners doing business in China should understand that Chinese blood is thicker than water, and that a Chinese person´s connections with local powers – authorities, tycoons, or neighbourhood committees – will in almost every case count more than connections with foreign colleagues or business partners.
This kind of conformity pressure may not be one of China´s most endearing features. It is perfectly alright to criticise it, but one has to respect the human dignity of the individual. Talking about "yellow spies" is a pretty poor standard.
Hypocrisy and confusion
What makes the outcry of German politicians and media so silly, is the "disappointment" that obviously motivates it. It was stupid to believe that China wouldn´t take what it could get (legally or otherwise), and it is stupid to be disappointed now. Too many German governments have tried to chum up to Peking at the expense of other governments, who dared to take issue of China´s human rights record. If they meant to be serious about their well-worn commitments to the "Western community of values", they have corrupted themselves. It is true that German governments weren´t the only ones to race for Peking´s benevolence (and orders), but one may say that they earned themselves a pole position more than once. Chancellor Kohl´s visit to the People´s Liberation Army´s barracks, and Chancellor Schröder´s attempt to lift the arms embargo on China are certainly not forgotten in Peking. But then, Schröder´s efforts were rather symbolic. For one, China´s military probably gets most of what it wants anyway, as much of it can be seen as dual use, and besides, both Schröder and Chirac could count on the opposition of more principled European governments against lifting the ban. Should we really complain now that there is no Chinese return on our cheap political "investments"?
Matters of respect
Morality doesn´t only cost something. It also has a practical, monetary value, because it offers orientation, and leads to targeted action.
Mere opportunism doesn´t earn us much respect in China. Nor will our latest u-turn (and this week´s Spiegel title speaks volumes about the change in mood here).
But the previous uncritical adoration of China, and the new, rather hostile attitude, have something in common. They both forget to respect the rights of each Chinese individual – here and elsewhere. Both the prior opportunism (fuck the rule of law, as long as we can do business with those in power), and the lately looming anti-Chinese mood, reveal a remarkable barbarism, and a lack of values, which doesn´t need to hide behind that of the Chinese leadership.
The issue in detail
Unusually vocal German reactions to alleged Chinese spying case
spiegel.de, Aug 27, 2007
blog.people.com.cn, Dec 5, 2007
瞭望, news.sohu.com, Nov 10, 2007
German press welcomes meeting between Dalai Lama and Merkel
Der Spiegel, Sept 24, 2007
You meet Dalai Lama? We won´t discuss patent issues with you!
BBC News, Sept 23, 2007
Li Datong briefs Angela Merkel on Chinese news media
danwei.org, Sept 14, 2007
German chancellor visits, and other mutual relations topics
cri.cn, Sept 1, 2007
» Hao´s and Boo-hao´s here