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The diplomatic approach to fundamental political difference

by Ralph Weber
Ralph Weber, Professor für European Global Studies über mehr Transparenz bei der Kooperation mit China.
Professor Ralph Weber from the University of Basel

The establishment of diplomatic relations between two states is a historically significant event. Milestone anniversaries are celebrated in a ceremonial and ritualized manner, i.e. following diplomatic customs. Efforts are made to avoid discord, to praise the current relationship where possible, and to give each other a straightened history of past relations.

And there are good reasons for all of this. The absence of diplomatic relations is generally regarded as unfavorable, even potentially dangerous, and the termination of relations is regarded as an escalation and ultima ratio.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Germany and China. As is common in liberal democracies, such an occasion also provides an opportunity for numerous actors from civil society, the media, universities and business to comment. Depending on their interests and agendas, these actors also tend to behave “diplomatically,” or otherwise, in deliberate demarcation, in a decidedly critical manner.

Diplomacy does not mean leveling differences

The fact that the People’s Republic of China is not a liberal democracy but, according to the constitution, “a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship,” and that a largely Leninist-organized Communist Party continues to rule the country, with corresponding resources for political activities abroad, complicates matters considerably.

The global political situation and tensions with the People’s Republic of China over its treatment of Hong Kong, Tibetan, Uyghur or other minorities, dissidents, human rights lawyers or journalists, as well as what has been apostrophized as a newly emerging self-confidence, and attempts to exert political influence in other countries have reignited discussions on a credible value-based foreign policy.

At their core, some of these discussions revolve around a fundamental dilemma when dealing with authoritarian regimes. First, diplomatic relations represent nothing more than formal recognition of one state by another. It is through the lived practice of relations that interests arise, which could be harmed by any deterioration in relations.

This poses the risk that, over time, formal recognition will be followed by material recognition. So how can a liberal democracy position itself vis-à-vis an authoritarian regime without normalizing and thus leveling the fundamentally divisive, normative political difference through its own actions and words? Perhaps even undermining one’s own set of values?

As long as China’s democratization was expected, overcoming political differences seemed only a matter of time. Now that the change has failed to materialize, however, political difference has once again moved to the center. Furthermore, internally authoritarian movements have gained ground in European societies, which have a dividing effect and fundamentally call the values of liberal democracies into question.

So what are the options?

One simple measure concerns the choice of words when dealing with the People’s Republic. It should make one’s own set of values unmistakably clear. In addition to standing up for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, more subtle levels of communication must also be taken into account. In particular, it is important to avoid leveling vocabulary. These are words on which both sides can agree in apparent consensus.

Our values are reflected in the choice of words

For example, it should be avoided, like a member of the Swiss government has done, to speak of “popular participation” when referring to semi-direct democracy on the Swiss side and Leninist democratic centralism on the Chinese side. The respective degrees of participation are worlds apart, after all.

Nor is it helpful to speak of “human dignity” when what is actually meant is “human rights”. And given China’s attempts to turn the core meaning of human rights on its head, it would also be necessary to differentiate and pay attention to a more precise formulation here. It is more adequate to use different words that indicate a political difference in interactions wherever possible.

It is also important to prevent false equivalences. The All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce (ACFIC, 中华全国工商业联合会), for example, is by no means a counterpart to the Federation of German Industries (BDI), but an organ of the United Front at the tail of the Communist Party.

A communication based on differences also conveys to the Chinese counterpart that one is familiar with the political system. Ultimately, it is important to avoid vocabulary that is commonly used in the propaganda and United Front activities of the Communist Party. This includes subtle expressions like “friends” or “bridge,” more obvious “win-win cooperation” or “a new era”. Instead of a “dialogue” pursued by civil society forces, one might prefer to speak of maintaining “contacts” or communicating one’s “position”.

The People’s Republic uses language in an extremely differentiated and deliberate manner. Adequate knowledge of the terminology used by the Chinese party state, as well as its inner structures and methods, is a prerequisite for representing one’s own positions credibly and with specifically chosen vocabulary.

Obviously, the choice of words alone will not be enough to turn the global political situation and the tensions with China to one’s own advantage. Apart from well-considered words, this will certainly require equally well-thought-out actions. But language always also communicates inwards, to the population that constitutes the state.

If the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations is now celebrated as it should be, then, despite the desire to express oneself “diplomatically,” there is certainly room for maneuver that can be filled accordingly to signal the fundamentally political difference between the “Federal Republic” and the “People’s Republic.”

This text is a translated and abridged version of the original first published on the website of the German-Chinese Dialogue Forum.

Ralph Weber is an Associate 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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