Interview: One year as a European in China, part II

, by Grischa Alexander Beißner, Translated by Steffi Buchler

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Interview: One year as a European in China, part II
Picture used by Treffpunkt Europa with the interviewee’s permission.

Arnaud Boehmann spent one year living in China. For many Europeans, the Middle Kingdom that exists beyond dramatic reports and prejudice is still hard to grasp. What does daily life look like over there? What moves Chinese people? Arnaud shared his experience about living in China as a European in an interview with our German sister edition Treffpunkt Europa, and the interview is published in three parts. In the second part, we talked about the relationship between Europe and China, but also about life in a country where censorship and surveillance reign.

Recently, we published the first part of the interview with Arnaud Boehmann, who lived in China for one year and came back to Germany with many impressions. He is familiar with both perspectives on the relationship between Europe and China – two rather different regions. While the Chinese see Germany very positively, scepticism towards China prevails in Germany. The Middle Kingdom is almost feared, for it is gaining more and more self-confidence.

The EU, on the other hand, remains shaken by crisis, and the relationship with the deeply torn USA is at its lowest point. The Chinese often criticise the instability of the EU, which, according to them, is due to its political system. From a Chinese point of view, EU politics is too focused on (recurring) elections and, because of that, unable to pursue the best long-term interests of the population. The second part of our interview focuses on the self-perception of China, the relationship with Europe and Europeans, but also on how daily life is changing as a result of China’s mass surveillance. China is often accused of double standards when it comes to Chinese and foreign companies. But does that also apply on a personal level? Are you treated equally as a foreigner in China, or do you have any legal disadvantages?

Arnaud: I’ve heard from friends and acquaintances in China that legal security is difficult for foreigners. By this I mean that if you enter a legal fight with a Chinese as a foreigner, you often lose out. That’s because the system is designed like that. This never happened to me, though. But the high social dynamics mentioned earlier also have a glass ceiling. Among the wealthy and powerful, there are – just like here – always a few older men who have a strong Chinese identity. Therefore, there are circles and layers which you can’t access as a foreigner. There are also certain limits as to what you can do as a foreigner in China and what not. As far as I know, you can’t acquire land. While you can build houses, you can only take the land on lease. You can also not become a member of the Communist Party. Is this some sort of a “China first” sentiment that exists in the minds of the older generation, still attached to China’s past and their own powerful position, or is it something you also notice amongst young people?

Arnaud: I must admit that I’ve been in touch with these elder men I mentioned before a few times. They’re between 40 and 65, incredibly rich, have high positions in companies etc. They were partly very kind, open, friendly, and generous when it comes to inviting you for dinner, very hospitable. But the recurring impression was that the Chinese still suffer from the fact that they don’t feel taken seriously. China is still coming to terms with the painful experience of colonialism and the Chinese are still exposed to all kinds of stereotypes. That’s a recurring pattern in China’s identity politics.

A Chinese who trades with a foreigner doesn’t want to feel ashamed about being Chinese. That’s why they’re so patriotic. Phrases like “yellow peril” or the “sick man of Asia”, which still circulate among media and discourse here in Europe, are difficult to forget. The Chinese also have bad access to the European market. Many Westerners oppose the Chinese due to this great scepticism. You never know what they ‘want to know’, if they want to ‘buy you’ etc. I believe this scepticism is the reason why the Chinese government operates Chinese companies abroad the way it does. I don’t think that it is a “China first” approach, because China does not want to be the ultimate hegemon. Rather, it wants to work at eye level with the great powers, to be a great power itself. They don’t want people to look down on them.

The “century of humiliation” is a well-known term in China. It’s been shaped by Mao and includes the period from the First Opium War to the foundation of the Chinese state. It’s the trauma of having partly been colonised, constantly defeated by Western powers due to lacking progress, and thus being at their mercy. This is something that’s still wearing China out today. The crimes of Western nations are still widely addressed in today’s education. For young people, whether they share this mindset depends on their background. There is still a lot of class distinction in China. What is decisive is often whether a young person has studied at university or not, whether they have spent time abroad or not. Those who have been abroad often don’t think like that, yet the government fiercely promotes that the young Chinese should be proud of their country and promote this vis-à-vis the outside world. China is also characterised by thorough state censorship. It is known that since John Oliver’s comments on China, even Winnie the Pooh is censored – because the Head of State does not want to be compared with him. How has censorship affected your life in China?

Arnaud: A popular term when talking about internet censorship is the “Great Firewall of China”. It’s interesting, since there are things that are possible that I did not think would be. It’s not like criticism is entirely prohibited, and I think we have to move away from the image that the Chinese are not critical about their own government. Of course, if you criticise China as a foreigner, it’s natural that many Chinese will initially side with their country, and then start to criticise it themselves.

Regarding censorship, articles and posts are often deleted, and certain websites are not accessible. Interestingly, Wikipedia – contrary to numerous claims – is not completely blocked in China, only the Chinese version. The website is still accessible in English, German and French. However, Google, Facebook and Youtube are blocked, and Amazon is only available with restriction. Nevertheless, you can bypass the censorship with VPN, a rerouting of your own internet connection via a foreign server through which you then get access. That’s what many Chinese people and foreign companies do. Until recently, only providing a VPN tunnel was illegal in China. Since the beginning of the year, you can theoretically also get punished for using one. The Chinese government has threatened many times to completely switch off VPN networks. It’s difficult to say if that’s possible at all, and it hasn’t happened yet.

But perhaps a few more words on bigger censorship campaigns: Chinese censorship often doesn’t happen from the side of the state, but through internet providers. There are certain terms that are not named, or subjects that are not allowed to be addressed, mainly things about citizens’ rights or questions about democracy, but also explicit criticism of the government or pornography. Even though it’s not ordered ‘from above’, internet providers often delete everything they think should be forbidden.

I remember one thing very precisely, and that concerned the LGBT+ community. For a while, there was a crackdown on such content. Those things were quickly deleted from blogs and social media, even the rainbow emoji was no longer available for private messages. This type of censorship is often not permanent, but comes during intervals in which a certain subject is especially delicate and blocked as a result. However I must admit that objection towards LGBT+ censorship was very big, and you could see that. There were statements that claimed that this was part of human life and general expressions of solidarity. Those were not blocked, and after this wave of criticism, the censorship of LGBT+ content was quickly cut back. As you can see, the government responds quite sensitively to such reactions. Due to the new social credits programme which is supported by mass surveillance, cameras and face-recognition software, China has made an Orwellian dystopia become reality. Have you experienced this in your daily life, and how did it affect your stay in China?

Arnaud: Of course you notice the cameras. Especially when you go through a dark alley, you notice the small red dot. The cameras are omnipresent, and sooner or later, you forget about them or get used to them. But you always feel observed. It may well be that we’re a bit hardened in Europe, since our data is also collected by the NSA and other services. That’s why our sensitivity is decreasing, too. But surveillance is there. You can see it, you can feel it, but I personally haven’t faced any negative consequences.

Obviously it’s a system training your self-discipline. Because the cameras are there, you don’t cross a red traffic light and for the same reason, you don’t do this or that. What you notice is that many Chinese consider this a positive thing, too, because it gives you a very high sense of safety in your daily life. There are probably more pickpockets on the markets in Rome and Barcelona than in most areas of China, and state surveillance is one of the main reasons behind the reduction of petty crimes. Of course those are not completely gone, bikes and scooters are still being stolen. But many people feel more protected this way. What has impressed you the most about Chinese culture?

Arnaud: Here in Europe, people like to quote Confucius without a lot of background knowledge. Personally, I don’t care much for Confucianism and its model of society. I’m more interested in Daoist traditions. Sichuan is one of the birthplaces of Daoism, and this philosophy is still maintained in China these days. In the West, we tend to associate China with Buddhism. But whereas that religion is technically imported, Daoism is genuinely Chinese. There’s a lot of cultural work in that field and there are research institutes dealing with this. And these philosophies are still much deeper anchored in the structure of society than you may think or wish to believe. Daoist temples are always well-visited. They’re busier than the average European church. And then there’s the age-old topic of ancestor worship, rooted in Confucianism, which you still notice in the daily hierarchy. Parents are extremely venerated. Not so long ago, China passed a law that makes it possible for parents to sue their children because they didn’t come visit often enough.

The idea that a working adult, even well-paid, lives with their parents and that a woman moves in with the family of her husband after marriage, still prevails in the minds of many Chinese people. Ancestor worship is still of important value, and so are humility, self-discipline, containment and the suppression of emotional outbursts in everyday life. All those things go back to traditional philosophies and are a crucial part of the culture.

What impresses me a lot about China is how long and ambitiously they approach things over there. Due to the giant population and the ways in which power is exercised, China has always been a country of mass campaigns and mass phenomena, starting with the imperial Grand Canal and the Great Wall. People have always mobilised on a large scale and planned and thought for the long term. Sure, in a one-party system, that’s easier. But it’s also THE key to China’s current economic success, to the new wealth which not every but still a big part of society can experience: long-term planning coupled with openness to risk.

This is visible regarding economic investments, for example: here in Germany, you have a budget and then start doing a risk analysis. And then another. In the end, you’ve spent ten percent of the budget on risk analysis and still decide not to go for it. In China, you might do one – and then just go for it. That can also go wrong, of course, but it leads to projects being finished in a timely manner. Affairs like the one around the new airport in Berlin would not be possible in China. Obviously, you also see some projects fail but you see many becoming a success. People are not afraid of big ventures. The act of handling things progressively is a characteristic of China’s new everyday culture, and it works for small things as well as for bigger ones. That’s a big difference compared to us.

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