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Nora Sausmikat – a life dedicated to China’s civil society

Nora Sausmikat, Head of the China Desk of the environmental and human rights organization Urgewald e.V.

When Nora Sausmikat stood on stage in the old Tea House Theatre in Chengdu at the end of the 1980s, newspapers, and television reported on the young European who had mastered Chinese opera. She has trained for a long time for this moment. Wearing a huge, colorful headdress and traditional costume, Sausmikat performs head voice and acrobatics. “I felt like a little star,” she says.

The Sinology student spent an initially carefree stay abroad in Chengdu from 1988 on, teaching English to young Chinese and discovering delicious food at the market behind Sichuan University. China and its culture, but above all its people with their great hospitality, quickly grow on her. She experiences political discussions with Chinese and foreign intellectuals, imagining herself in a seemingly open culture. “There was a spirit of optimism,” says Sausmikat.

The experiences of 1989 were defining

June 1989 changed everything. Hundreds of thousands of often young people demonstrate for democracy in many Chinese cities in the spring, including Chengdu. On the night of June 3rd to 4th, the situation in Beijing escalated. The Chinese military brutally put down the burgeoning democracy movement. The exact death toll remains unclear – some sources speak of thousands of dead. In Chengdu, too, Sausmikat witnesses tanks rolling down the street and tear gas obscuring the view.

The Tiananmen Massacre sends the country into shock – and changes student life from one day to the next. “Most of the other students left the dormitory, brought themselves to safety,” says Sausmikat. Only she and an Australian woman stayed behind for the time being, while friends and teachers of the university disappeared into police custody.

Eventually, Sausmikat also flees to a friend in Xiamen, 2000 kilometers away. She experiences a country in fear and turmoil. At a train station, she witnesses a public flogging. On the trains, no one wants to talk about the past events – the government spreads the narrative that demonstrators had begun with the violence. While Sausmikat is still in China, the Berlin Wall falls. The newspaper China Daily reports about it in a side note on the last page.

Building the China Program of the Asienhaus foundation

Influenced by her experiences, Sausmikat soon devoted more time to political research. “Topics such as participation and opinion-forming have never left me,” she says. Chinese civil society has shaped the course of her life ever since. She writes her doctoral thesis on the memory culture of Chinese generations and spends several long research stays in China. Today, Sausmikat heads the China Desk of the German environmental and human rights organization Urgewald, based in Sassenberg, Westphalia.

However, her path there first led to Cologne, where she was extensively involved in setting up the China Program of the Asienhaus foundation in 2008. She developed an exchange program between European and Chinese NGOs. “We wanted to break down barriers, create familiarity through personal encounters and build long-term partnerships.” She says one goal was also to convey a more nuanced image of China and its diverse society in Germany. “Around the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, coverage was very one-sided and negative,” she says.

Also, because she had experienced a renewed opening of Chinese society from the 2000s onwards, tolerated by a government that – many years later – again allowed more exchange and pluralism. At that time, she got to know numerous Chinese people, whom she learned to admire because of the way they “always acted creatively, even in the face of adversity”.

NGOs need to chant party slogans

In 2013, President Xi Jinping takes office. For the second time since 1989, Sausmikat is confronted with a radical turning point in the course of the Chinese government. This time, however, it happens more insidiously. Xi has gradually established a totalitarian personality cult, and exchange with Chinese NGOs has become increasingly difficult, says Sausmikat. Today, the government dictates exactly which topics are allowed to be discussed. It is no problem to exchange ideas about technical solutions for climate protection, for example. “But anything that revolves around human rights is taboo.”

In 2019, the foundation’s exchange program will end, in part because funding is running out. “But it was also increasingly difficult for me to back it up,” says Sausmikat. Chinese partners were no longer allowed to speak freely, more and more restrictive conditions had to be signed. NGOs today need to chant the party’s slogans. “It is barely possible anymore to design an exchange program in such a way that it is harmless for everyone involved.”

Urgewald follows the money trail

Sausmikat starts her new job at Urgewald in 2019 but now with a different approach: dialogue within an official program has given way to directed political work. “I didn’t want to settle for compromise anymore.” Urgewald tackles China’s role in the world – and its financial economy. “We follow the money trail,” says Sausmikat. After all, no major construction project that violates human rights, for example with forced relocations, is possible without financial backup.

Her work focuses, for example, on the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). “We review the impacts on human rights and the environment of projects financed by the AIIB.” Since the multilateral bank also receives German taxpayer money, this is an efficient means to denounce human rights violations. “We put pressure on investors, banks, and politicians.” In addition, the organization is a contact for Chinese small farmers and climate activists.

Her view of China has changed: “For a long time, I fought one-sided negative reporting. Unfortunately, the reality of today is that one is more likely to overlook human rights violations.” Jan Wittenbrink


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