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Dialogue on the Precipice

By Christian Straube
Christian Straube

Dialogue with China is characterized by more facets than a conference with political decision-makers for invited guests in Beijing. It also involves more than the public exchange of statements between politicians from China and Europe. This visible dialogue of “high politics” seems just as dispensable as the need to travel to China.

The development of dialogue between civil society organisations over the last ten years has shown that the spaces for exchange are clearly dwindling. New rules and laws in China stifle dialogue with bureaucratic red tape and authoritarian surveillance. At the same time, however, the encounters between the two sides also show that substantive priorities are often set similarly and that there is an interest in continuing to work together on topics such as decarbonisation and sustainability.

Particularly due to the more restrictive policies under Xi Jinping, the need for China expertise is increasing. The need for dialogue with civil society organisations plays a central role here, also with a view to the New Silk Roads. After all, it is civil society that has experienced and helped shape the country’s economic development. Civil society organisations know the Chinese structures behind, for example, the social impacts of large-scale projects, the export of fossil energy production or urban development in BRI countries. More projects are needed that open up spaces for dialogue between Chinese and, for example, Southeast Asian environmental organisations.

Increasing Pressure – also due to Polarization

However, both the increasingly restrictive structures in China and the polarized debate in Germany are putting more and more pressure on me and my work as a dialogue creator. The impression often arises that “dialogue” in itself already stands for active collaboration with and passive external control by the Chinese Communist Party. The debate in Germany deprives me of the language in my work as a communicator for civil society exchange.

An example of this is the director of the GPPi, who himself has no background in regional studies, but who helps to shape the China discourse in Germany in frequently provocative opinion pieces. Would this even be possible with regard to our neighbour France, for example? Probably not. It is more effective to orient oneself towards those people with China competence from education, science and civil society who deal with stays in China and its framework conditions in their practical work on a daily basis.

The legal structures in China, on the other hand, eat up the interstices that are necessary for my work. It is an illusion to assume that there is a “flawless” dialogue with China. The initial political situation as well as the expansion of party structures in state and society only open up channels with official participation for civil society dialogue. These are mostly organizations and security agencies initiated by the Communist Party or the state.

The pandemic currently makes dialogue on the ground impossible. Digital alternatives no longer allow for nuances. Dialogue here is no more than an exchange of views. The shift to the digital space makes it clear to all who work with China how much the face-to-face conversation on the margins of conferences, workshops and dialogue mechanisms is missing.

“Talking to China” instead of “talking about China”.

With all these difficulties, should the conclusion be not to travel to China in the future? No. It would be the end of my work as a communicator between the two sides. The crux of the matter is rather how much space and influence official involvement takes up in the respective cooperation and how much space remains in which one can still work in accordance with one’s own values. This consideration is not new; it has been with me since I studied sinology. My experience also shows that many people in China are involved in a wide variety of civil society initiatives. Traveling to China therefore means showing interest in their courage and arousing curiosity in their counterparts about their own work and perspectives.

Ultimately, travelling to China is also about showing resistance to state-enforced Chinese exceptionalism and the monolithic representation of China in discourse. However, this can only be achieved if we “talk to China” and not if we fall back into “talking about China”. Only in dialogue is it possible to counter the discourses about the Other, both in Germany and in China, with something concrete. Finally, it should be noted that for my work, trips to China and encounters on the ground are indispensable. Only these encounters lead to shared knowledge and new answers to the global challenges of today.

Dr. Christian Straube is Program Manager in the China Program of Stiftung Asienhaus in Cologne. He studied Sinology, Economics and South Asian Political Science at the University of Heidelberg and Tsinghua University in Beijing. He then did research for the Max Planck Institute for Ethnological Research in Zambia and completed his doctorate at the University of Halle-Wittenberg. Here at China.Table he expresses a personal opinion.

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