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At what point does cooperation lead to complicity?

By Ralph Weber
Ralph Weber, Professor of European Global Studies

Just a few years ago, cooperation with partners from the People’s Republic of China was high on the agendas of numerous European players. Those who refused to participate simply failed to read the signs.

But cooperation has become more complicated. The image of the Chinese government has suffered considerably in recent years because of its human rights crimes in Xinjiang or threats against Taiwan – to name just two aspects. Today, close cooperation with a systematic rival that has openly declared war on our democracies and values must be very well justified to avoid being caught in the crossfire of criticism.

However, because some in the West have a lot to lose, some paint the devil of full decoupling on the wall. It is supposed to show the dangers we face if we distance ourselves too much from China. Often the devil does his job.

Unconditional cooperation and complete decoupling represent two unattractive ends of a spectrum that needs to be considered individually for each business sector. Anyone conducting business in Xinjiang, where people are imprisoned against their will, re-educated, and forced to work in some cases, faces greater (and practically impossible) due diligence than a company producing screwdrivers in Shanghai.

Suggests that cooperation is inherently the right path

Cooperation partners in the People’s Republic are subject to the dictates and whims of the party-state. Some are even directly docked to the party-state. The pressure that the party-state is able to exert on private Chinese entrepreneurs is also enormous. In such a system, every cooperation is ultimately always a co-optation. The ensuing question is: How to handle this? And if you are aware of it, how transparent do you act?

Germany’s former Minister of Defense, Rudolf Scharping, complains that “the nuances” are lost if direct and personal exchanges are not cultivated. Sober analysis is needed instead of decoupling. He pleads for cooperation. He cites trade, investment, research and development, and necessary negotiations. Without China, for example, there would be no globally viable response to climate change.

To put it bluntly, it reads like this: Since complete decoupling (which apparently excludes even negotiations) is bad and efforts to address climate change are good, the suggestion is that cooperation per se is the right way to go. The problem is that the cooperation partner cannot be freely chosen in China, but automatically ends up in the hands of those who are responsible for the aforementioned human rights crimes in Xinjiang or the military threats against Taiwan.

Even Scharping cannot elude the powers that be. This became apparent at the 9th German-Chinese Business Conference in Frankfurt in early September, which was jointly organized by his consulting firm and the China Economic Cooperation Center (CECC, 中国经济联络中心) and supported by the China Council for International Investment Promotion (CCIIP, 中国国际投资促进会).

The CECC reports directly to the International Liaison Department, which is part of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The International Liaison Department is responsible for the CP’s relations with other parties outside the country, historically primarily with other communist parties, but since the reform and opening-up policy also with political parties of all kinds.

Influencing is barely denied

Since the early 2000s, and especially under President Xi Jinping, the International Liaison Department (as well as the Propaganda Department and especially the Unified Front Work Department) has gained significance. The fact that this involves influencing, co-opting, and asserting foreign policy interests of the Chinese party-state is hardly denied.

Recent research on the International Liaison Department also mentions Germany’s special position in Europe in these efforts. The CECC’s homepage also explicitly states the goal of promoting the “external work” (对外工作) of the CCP and implementing “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

The fact that the International Liaison Department is behind the CECC can also be seen in the list of speakers at the Frankfurt conference. Shen Beili 沈蓓莉 and Liu Jingqin 刘敬钦, one current and one former top official of the International Liaison Department, attended the event. Jiang Feng 姜锋, the Party Secretary of Shanghai International Studies University, also delivered a speech in Frankfurt. The latter, in a conversation with Scharping published by the People’s Daily in January 2022, described the PRC political system “as a multi-party system” in which there are “many democratic parties” – meaning the “parties” that are under the leadership and control of the CCP and gathered in the united front.

Cooperation with the International Liaison Department is by no means new. For instance, last year Scharping attended the Summit between the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and Political Parties Worldwide, which is hosted by the International Liaison Department. There, he praised the CCP several times in his speech. But the fact that cooperation with actors from the People’s Republic of China always leads to co-optation is ultimately owed to a systemic necessity inherent in a one-party dictatorship, which is China’s political system as stated in Article 1 of the state constitution and despite its cadres’ claims to the contrary. Under this system, all relations with the world are managed outside the Party and, as far as possible, subordinated to the Party agenda.

At what point does cooperation lead to complicity?

Those who choose cooperation, for which there may be good reasons, must find a way to deal with co-optation. Do you censor yourself to some extent because you don’t want to burden your counterpart too much, out of politeness, clever tactics or because this would help you to achieve your own interests? Or do you even explicitly echo the propaganda positions of the Chinese Communist Party, which are normalized in the process, and thus even accept the successful exercise of discourse power? At what point does cooperation lead to complicity?

All these questions may and must be answered individually and differently in each case. But one thing is clear: If one cooperates directly with Chinese party-state institutions, one must transparently disclose this fact. This is the only way to leave it up to others to decide how far they want to be appropriate.

Ralph Weber is a Professor of European Global Studies at the University of Basel in Switzerland. His research fields include Chinese political philosophy, modern Confucianism, and Chinese politics. He focuses on European-Chinese relations and published a widely acclaimed study on the influence of the Chinese party-state in Switzerland in December 2020.

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