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Mareike Ohlberg

Senior Fellow German Marshall Fund Asia Program

Mareike Ohlberg has given up brooding. Whether or not she has actually been sanctioned by the Chinese government is basically irrelevant to her. The sinologist is pretty sure that she will not be allowed to enter the People’s Republic again until further notice – official sanctions or not.

Evidence for their assumption: an article in the Global Times, a Chinese daily newspaper that is fully aligned with the state announcements. The medium recently introduced its readers to those individuals and institutions that were sanctioned by name by the People’s Republic of China. The personal punishments were part of a retaliation for concerted sanctions from the EU and the US against Chinese officials. Ohlberg herself found mention as a former employee of the sanctioned Berlin-based Mercator Institute (Merics). As such, she had signed an open letter in April 2020 sharply criticizing China’s COVID policy. The Global Times referred to this letter and defamed Ohlberg as well as her former Merics colleague Kristin Shi-Kupfer.

But what does that mean in concrete terms? Ohlberg doesn’t know. No one has officially told her that she is no longer welcome in the country. But the 36-year-old puts one and one together. Her work reflects a critical stance on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and has been a thorn in Beijing’s side for a while. In 2017, despite an invitation from the German embassy in Beijing, she was denied a visa for the first time, shortly after she had researched and published on ideological currents in China.

“Are you a purebred German?” she was asked at the time of her application. “It was bizarre, but it seemed like they were looking for a reason to deny me entry,” says Ohlberg, whose family is partly from Russia and whose mother was born in the US. The Chinese embassy stresses to China.Table that visas are issued on the basis of citizenship. “The Chinese embassy and consulates general in Germany process visa applications of foreign citizens in accordance with international law and relevant Chinese laws, its statement said.

Mareike Ohlberg’s book causes a stir

And then there’s this book that came out last year, in 2020, Hidden Hand which Ohlberg co-authored. There she describes Chinese structures that are designed to undermine and subvert the world’s democracies. The book is causing a stir because it is a wake-up call and shows the means by which the People’s Republic intensively seeks to make its authoritarian policies acceptable in other states. China would therefore prefer to silence voices like Ohlberg’s. However, because the dictatorship lacks arguments against scientific work, it categorically banishes all disagreeable counter-positions to the realm of lies. Evidence to the contrary? Not a thing.

“The Chinese government’s strategy is to unsettle and scare the other side. I don’t read comments on social media because it doesn’t make any sense to me. But sometimes friends send me messages asking if I’m scared,” Ohlberg says. Then she knows that someone must have threatened her again on the internet. But the attempt to intimidate her also goes through her employer, the German Marshall Fund (GMF), a US foundation that seeks to improve the transatlantic relationship with Europe. “Occasionally, there are complaints against me to my employer and to others who might hire me in the future. So critics try to block my professional future,” Ohlberg says.

While this doesn’t impress the researcher, she says, it does show the Communist Party’s objective: “Beijing wants to dry up the sources of fact-based and critical analysis of Chinese politics and replace them with their own narratives.” Merics and GMF are described by state media in the People’s Republic as anti-Chinese tools of the US government.

Helmut Schmidt’s questionable view of China

Ohlberg is used to making a splash. Authorities have never made a lasting impression on her, she says. You can believe that. The other day she sat with Jörg Thadeusz on Talk from Berlin in the RRB television studio and was supposed to explain the content of her book. The moderator confronted her with a quote from what he called the “saintly” former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt on the subject of China from 2013.

Schmidt said at the time that dictatorship was culturally the right form of rule for the Chinese people. A classic argument from the propaganda forge of the Chinese Communist Party. The former SPD politician liked to talk about his friendship with former top politician Deng Xiaoping. Many of his conclusions were based on conversations with Deng. Ohlberg took a slightly annoyed breath in front of the camera and said, “Helmut Schmidt had relatively many questionable ideas about China.” Of course, there were negative reactions to that as well, this time from Germans.

How does she explain the highly emotional nature of the China debate in Germany? Ohlberg believes that many advocates of the Beijing autocrats are simply ill-informed. Some people drive through Xinjiang for a few weeks and believe that they can see that the human rights crimes against the Uyghur minority are by no means as bad as they are portrayed in the West because they have seen nothing of the sort themselves. Others, on the other hand, know better but are acting in their own self-interest: “There are certainly some who really believe that the portrayals of what is happening in Xinjiang are exaggerated. But there are also many who very deliberately want to score points with the Chinese government by speaking out against it.”

In her research, Ohlberg has been intensively involved with Chinese propaganda since her doctoral thesis. When she studied in Beijing for a year in 2004, she became acquainted with an enormous diversity of opinions in the country, from which she abstracted an essence over many years that today bitterly offends friends of the Communist Party. Early on, she was of the opinion that one should be allowed to study Sinology and, at the same time, stand up for the rights of oppressed Tibetans. Ohlberg remembers fellow students who preferred not to sign anything because they were afraid that they would be denied entry to China afterwards.

Such concessions are deeply suspect to the author. She says she has always been willing to pay the price for critical China research. The vituperations in the Global Times are part of that price. She is also unwilling to risk entry into Hong Kong because of new legislation there. Lawyers have told her that they would definitely find something against her that violates the vaguely worded National Security Law (China.Table reported).

Lively Discussions with her Lecturers

Ohlberg got to know Chinese culture from many perspectives. As an exchange student in Beijing, as an employee of the Cheng Shewo Institute for Journalism in Taiwan, or through a friend from Hong Kong whom she met in the USA when she was 16. During her studies, at a time when a breeze of liberalization was blowing through the country under former President Hu Jintao, she had lively discussions with her lecturers about authoritarian structures or minority policies. She learned about the critical attitude of many academics in the People’s Republic towards their own government, but also about the arguments of those in favor. That was almost 20 years ago. Such discussions are unthinkable in China today. Fear rules the minds of intellectuals. Even Ohlberg is cautious. “It should not be traceable in the text about me who these critical minds were. That can get them into trouble again today,” she says.

And then there were also Uyghur friends, some of whom she misses today because she doesn’t know what happened to them. Ohlberg accepts that she is accused of bias because of these personal relationships. She says, “Anyone who has gained personal experience should not be excluded from a debate because of perceived bias.Marcel Grzanna

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