THE HIDDEN HAND OF CHINA. Mareike Ohlberg is a senior Fellow in the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund. Based in Berlin, she previously worked as an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, focussing on China’s media and digital policies as well as the Chinese Communist Party’s influence campaigns in Europe. She has spent several years living and working in Greater China.

Mareike Ohlberg, you and Clive Hamilton say in your just published book “Hidden Hand – Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World” that the Cold War never ended on the Chinese side. Can you explain why? 

After the end of the Cold War, the West had a moment of triumph. Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of history. From the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), things have always looked different. After the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in the early 1990s, the Party found itself in a world where there were very few communist parties left. The CCP was convinced that now that the Soviet Union was gone, the West would focus all its resources towards transforming China into a democratic state through economic engagement and cultural infiltration. It’s hard to blame them for thinking so; after all, this was the professed core idea of the West’s engagement strategy with China. I do think the CCP read too much into engagement rhetoric, which was always a bit of a fig leaf to be able to continue to trade with China after the Tiananmen Massacre. But essentially, while the West was busy deepening economic ties with China in the 1990s, the CCP viewed this through a Cold War lens and prepared itself for a new ideological confrontation. Therefore, from the Party’s point of view, the old Cold War and the new war of ideas followed right after one another. Initially, the Party was focused on how to be able to continue economic reform while simultaneously keeping “hostile” or “poisonous” ideas out of China. Later, Party strategists concluded that attack is the best form of defence: taking the “battlefront” abroad by trying to change the global public opinion and the international order to avoid having to deal with a hostile external environment.

“There are few other countries with an equivalent political system and a single Party that is so powerfully fused to the state.”

Mareike Ohlberg

Mareike Ohlberg, in the first chapter of your book you say that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is determined to transform the international order and to shape the world in its own image, without a shot being fired. Are they succeeding as well as they would like? 

If you were to ask the Party elite itself, they would say no. They’re not where they want to be yet. Still, they have come a lot further in exporting a substantial part of the Party’s censorship taboos than most people expected. These days big multinationals bend over backwards to avoid offending the Chinese government, including by trying to control what employees say on social media in their free time. Airlines and hotel chains list Taiwan as “Taiwan, China”. But it’s not just corporations. Artists have trouble exhibiting their work if it could offend the CCP. And governments are afraid to speak out on issues such as the concentration camps in Xinjiang or the National Security Law in Hong Kong because they’re worried the Chinese government could put them in the freezer.

In 2021 the CCP will turn 100. It has grown from little more than a dozen members in 1921 to 90 million, with its own military force of 2 million personnel. You say that the international community has failed to understand the comprehensive role that the CCP plays in China. How come? 

We have largely written the Party out of the picture. We refer to Xi Jinping as the President of China and think of the People’s Liberation Army as the Chinese army, even though it is loyal to the Party, not the Chinese government. In large part this is probably because there are few other countries with an equivalent political system and a single Party that is so powerfully fused to the state, so we normalize the Chinese system by using the more familiar terms. But ultimately that obscures what we are dealing with, because a substantial part of China’s foreign policy is driven by the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Party sees the united front strategy as a science based on Marxist/Leninist fundamentals. Can you please describe this strategy that has intensified since Xi Jinping became Party General Secretary in 2012? 

The United Front strategy was developed in the first half of the Twentieth century and was used in particular to justify the CCP’s alliance with its biggest domestic rival, the Nationalist Party, against the Japanese. As with all Party theory, the CCP now likes to claim that it is a “science” based on objective principles. The basic idea of the united front is to unite all forces that can be united against the “principal enemy”, which can change over time or according to the context.

“Europe needs to understand that its China policy is outdated.”

Mareike Ohlberg, is it true that Chinese foreign policy is to try to build up friendship and partnership with the European countries in order to counter American power? 

This is not the only reason, but a very important one. It’s the United Front principle at work. On a global scale, the United States is China’s “principal enemy” that must be weakened and isolated from its allies. Europe is a key U.S. ally that must be pried away from the United States. In the short to mid term, the idea is to get Europe to remain neutral in a conflict – large or small – between China and the United States. I would say that we’re almost at this point. In the long run, the Chinese government wants Europe to side with China.

In 2017 Xi Jinping told the cadres that friends outside the Party are not their “own personal resources” but should be made friends for the Party or the public good. Does this mean that there is no freedom at all in China? 

The main point we wanted to illustrate with this quote is that friendship is a political concept, and that friends are seen as strategic resources. They’re not “friends” in the traditional sense, but people who are willing to represent the interests of the CCP. As far as freedom is concerned, it is true that the Party is controlling its own members and society increasingly tightly. The Party distinguishes between two broad categories, that which is “political” and that which is not. If something is “political”, people are expected to fall in line with the Party, whereas in the apolitical realm, there is freedom to do, think or argue as one pleases. Some people like to compare the current times to the Cultural Revolution. Back then, even the way one would greet one’s neighbours or order bread was considered political. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that, but it is true that under Xi the scope of what is “political” has expanded quite substantially.

Are the recent riots in Hong Kong and Taiwan dangerous for the stability of the Chinese regime? 

The CCP views the massive protests in Hong Kong as a direct threat to its own regime security. The official narrative promoted by the Party is that foreign forces are instigating the protests to cause problems for the CCP. That’s nonsense. But in a way, Hong Kong and Taiwan do challenge key narratives of the CCP. Both are examples of people who are in large parts culturally Chinese who either live under a functional democracy or aspire to one. Of course, at least in Taiwan a substantial portion aren’t Han-Chinese, and in both Hong Kong and Taiwan many don’t identify as Chinese. But from the Party’s perspective they still pose a challenge to the CCP’s master narrative that democracy does not work in China.

Do you think that the Chinese health authorities handled seriously and in a transparent way the origin, coming out and spreading of the corona virus? 

No. They buried information, silenced whistle-blowers and lied to the international community. Now they’re preventing a serious inquiry into the origin of the virus.

I have the feeling that in your book you don’t condemn President Trump’s policies and measures vis-a-vis China.  

There are lots of problems with Trump’s China policy. Trump is not a champion of human rights, so it’s difficult for me to look at some of the policies he has pursued in this area against China and not see them as an instrument to achieve concessions in other areas. Trump gets a lot of things on China right, but for the wrong reasons. In a way, however, that’s still better than the approach pursued by Europe’s larger economies, which want to continue pursuing constructive dialogue with the CCP and are unwilling or unable to realize that it takes two to have a dialogue. In that regard, the United States has a more realistic view of the CCP.

“Coordination among allies is key, and this will take effort on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Mareike Ohlberg, you say that companies should not expect their governments to compromise human rights and human freedoms to appease Beijing and you suggest that we should not give in to China. Has the West been too dependent on China economically and financially?  

Some western countries do depend too much on China, but we often fail to acknowledge that this dependence is mutual. We overestimate the power that the Chinese government has over us and therefore give in too quickly when China threatens retaliation. Take Germany as an example. Of all European economies, Germany is the most exposed to the Chinese market. Yet even in Germany, strong dependence is concentrated in a few sectors and large corporations. And when you look more closely, you find that China benefits a great deal from these companies’ presence in the Chinese market. So most retaliatory measures would also impact China. It’s like what happened with Australia recently. Despite worsening diplomatic ties, China has increased its import of Australian resources in recent months. If you have a product or service that China needs, the government won’t cut that off to punish you. Worst case, there will be some short-term symbolic action. If China doesn’t need your product very urgently or can find better alternatives, your position on the Chinese market is tenuous to begin with. I understand companies don’t want to take the risk, but western governments need to understand that they have a lot more leeway to take a principled stance than they think, because China needs us as much as we need China.

How are the democracies to become more resilient? 

Ultimately, this comes down to increasing our own “China literacy”, in particular understanding what the CCP is and what it wants. Once we have a more realistic understanding, we can look at where there are genuine overlaps of interest between China under the CCP and Western countries. We can work in the CCP in these areas while continuing to push back against the CCP’s human rights violations and its attempts to censor speech internationally. In a way, the same that applies to companies also applies to governments: we can afford to take a principled stance because if the CCP is really interested in working with us, it will happen. If the Party has no interest in doing something, it doesn’t matter how much of their criticism Western governments hold back in order not to endanger “constructive dialogue”. None of that will make it any more likely that the Party will make any long-term concessions.

You suggest that better coordination among the allies is vital, but President Trump doesn’t seem to endorse this way of thinking. Is your book sounding a warning to the West, showing the many different strategies that the Chinese are deploying in order to reshape the world under their governance? 

Coordination among allies is key, and this will take effort on both sides of the Atlantic. In order to come together, the United States needs to understand that it needs as many allies as it can get, and Europe needs to understand that its China policy is outdated.