A meadow in the park, sweaters as goalposts – then followed an hour and a half of soccer. During his four years working in Shanghai, Stefan Pantekoek regularly played soccer. Expats from different countries met with Chinese to play sports together in a park. “It was pure multiculturalism,” Pantekoek recalls. Only smog could stop these hobby soccer players. ” Of course, we were careful when the levels were too high.”
From 2015 to 2019, Pantekoek headed the Shanghai office of the German Social Democratic Party affiliated Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). The goal in Shanghai: Provide impetus for the socio-ecological transition, digitalization and the development of trade unions. An important vehicle for this is the party dialogue between the SPD and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – established after a meeting between former German Chancellor Willy Brandt and China’s leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in 1984. “It’s very important not just to talk about China – but to talk with China,” says Pantekoek.
Pantekoek remains convinced that it is possible to contribute to social improvements even in an authoritarian nation. When it comes to social security systems, for example, the Party and the government “look very closely to Germany” – and hope that an actor like the FES will provide some impetus. At the same time, however, critical issues such as human rights and digital surveillance of Chinese citizens need to be addressed. “It is important to take a consistent position here”.
Not South America after all
In addition to its activities in and about China, the FES provides extensive advice to its political backbone, explains Pantekoek. It also provides SPD politicians with information and assessments of the situation in China – the party leadership at Willy Brandt House or the parliamentary group in the German Bundestag. In the meantime, Pantekoek has moved closer to domestic decision-makers. In the fall of 2019, he moved back to the Berlin headquarters of the FES, where he is now also responsible for coordinating work between the two offices in Beijing and Shanghai as Desk Officer China. In addition, he is considered in Brussels as a “contact person and point of reference.”
Other countries and cultures fascinated him when he was still at school, says Pantekoek – “even though it wasn’t inherent in the family”. Born in Oldenburg in 1983, he grew up in a “classic social democratic working-class household”. At 16, he went to Argentina for a year and attended an agricultural school. His interest in South America had been awakened. After graduating from school, Pantekoek pursued a degree in regional studies with a focus on Latin America in Buenos Aires and Cologne. When he started his career, he hoped that the FES would send him there. But that did not happen. “The staff was expected to have a broader focus,” Pantekoek recalls. He started in the Middle East.
Hard work in Shanghai
Once back at headquarters, Pantekoek worked in the “Global Policy and Development” unit – with a focus on international trade issues as well. “That’s when the field of China began to open up.” On the ground in Shanghai, Pantekoek then experienced how his work was complicated. In 2017, the Chinese government passed a law for foreign NGOs. “Our work changed fundamentally from one day to the next.” Non-governmental organizations, which include foundations, were subordinated to new security authorities. Greater supervision and elaborate approval processes were the results.
Allowing himself to become discouraged – that is out of the question for Pantekoek. It is far too important to always present a differentiated picture of China, he says. For example, despite all the legitimate criticism, China’s involvement in Africa is portrayed in a way that is both “temporally abbreviated and one-sided”. Too often, the only criticism is that the People’s Republic is leading African countries into a debt trap. An unfair assessment, believes Pantekoek. “China’s positive impact on developing economies in Africa cannot be ignored. Various independent studies show substantial welfare gains for local populations in a wide range of projects,” he says. Thomas Mersch