Global Review had the honor of conducting an interview with Prof. Dr. Van Ess, Professor of Sinology at the LMU and President of the Max Weber Foundation, on China, the Chinese Communist Party, especially after the 20th party congress.
Global Review: Prof. Van Ess, how do you assess the 20th party congress, where Xi Jinping was elected chairman for the third time? What reeianed the same, what was new, what was unusual? Be it minority issues, Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Chinese dream, rejuvenation and rebirth of China, economic policy, population policy, Covid policy, foreign and security policy? Everything the same except for the now absolute position of Xi?
Professor Van Ess: From the outside, actually not much new. The Chinese dream seems to have receded into the background, and combating problems is the central theme.
Global Review: In the past, the politbureau and its standing committee were selected according to a proportional system that was not entirely transparent, and some factions then stood out, be it the so-called Shanghai Gang with Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao as the most prominent representatives and Hu Jintao for the Youth League . Some observers claim that this is no longer the case, with only one Xi clique in control and pushing everyone else out. What do you think of it? To what extent do old party veterans like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao still play in the background after they resign?
Professor Van Ess: I recently spoke to a Chinese colleague who said he couldn’t say much about the new constellation himself. He said these ideas about the Communist Youth League and the so-called princelings are interesting, but mostly come from analysts living in the US. When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he was considered a „princeling“ because his father was an old comrade-in-arms of Deng Xiaoping. But that was also true of his competitor Bo Xilai, so it is clear that the front lines do not run so easily between different organizations within the party. However, it cannot be ignored that Xi Jinping has strengthened the position of his own partisans. Deng Xiaoping is known to have shaped politics in the 1980s, although he was „only“ chairman of the military commission, and his influence was also clearly felt during the early years of the Jiang Zemin era. Jiang Zemin brought up the formula of the „Three Representations“, which was also maintained in the time of Hu Jintao. The break between Hu and Xi is obviously a harder one, even if it only really became apparent during Xi Jinping’s second term in office. At that time, of course, the antagonism between the US and China escalated, provoked by Trump’s turn in China policy, so that for a long time people in China thought that the break with the past had more to do with US foreign policy than with Xi Jinping himself. An important reason why Hu Jintao was not able to work in the background to the same extent as his predecessors under Xi Jinping is probably the fact that social upheavals and economic problems such as the real estate bubble occurred under him, and the consequences which only emerged were really felt under the successor government.
Global Review: What were the essential characteristics and policies of Deng, Jiang, Hu and now Xi in comparison. Is this a continuous gradual development of China as a world power in planned development phases or is it more improvised given the international environment?
Professor Van Ess: Deng Xiaoping and his two successors, Jiang and Hu, stood for liberalization in the economic sector, which unleashed the productive forces, but led to a widening of the wealth gap even under Jiang Zemin. By the end of Hu Jintao’s reign, it was wide open. I see this as the main reason why Xi Jinping launched a hardline anti-Western stance and a campaign of Marxist re-ideologization that had not been seen before. On the one hand, this is a reaction to the international environment (trade war between the Trump and Biden governments, who are surprisingly unanimous on this issue), and on the other hand to domestic political developments.
Global Review: Deng’s maxims were: „It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice“ „Some must get rich before all can get rich“ „Cover up the increasing strength and do not show it openly“. He is said to have a nihilistic, value-free pragmatism. Xi, on the other hand, now applies to many China experts and China critics in view of the zero Covid strategy, security trumps economy, wolf warrior rhetoric and aggressive behavior towards other Asian countries in the South China Sea, East China Sea, India and Taiwan, also in alliance with Putin’s Russia and the goal of a multipolar world as an ideologue. How do you assess this and also the thesis of China as a systemic opponent?
Professor Van Ess: I don’t think that’s a solid thesis. Xi Jinping’s policies are aimed at securing the power of the Communist Party in China, not pursuing more aggressive foreign policy goals than previous CCP politicians would have advocated. In the South China Sea, there are disputes with some neighboring countries over individual islands, but the real issue is that the USA rose to become the power that exercised unrestricted control over the Pacific after World War II. Indeed, this control is threatened by the economic rise of the PRC. Of course, the US doesn’t like that, and neither does the Japanese, who were the economic supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region before China. An example of the geopolitical, not systemic, nature of the conflict is Okinawa. This is an American military base that, while not popular with local residents, at the same time secures Japanese territorial claims that are historically unfounded – they are a result of colonialism in the second half of the nineteenth century. So different perspectives collide here, which, however, are not so easy to get rid of with the talk of the „systemic opponent“. The other conflicts are also geopolitical, not systemic, meaning that forces in China other than the CCP would also take the CCP view. What is really behind the zero Covid strategy is very difficult to judge. On the one hand it certainly has something to do with the fact that the KP is very afraid that Covid could have the potential to unseat them, on the other hand one could sometimes get the impression that null-Covid is also run to experiment , how well China can do without the world without anything going wrong.
Global Review: When assessing China’s future, there is the more optimistic faction who think China will continue to grow, despite some setbacks they will overcome them, have no interest in war despite rearmament, especially since they are in no hurry to unify with Taiwan . The time horizons that see China as a world power, including reunification, tend to focus on symbolic years such as 2035 or 2049. The Peak Power theorists believe that China will soon have passed its zenith of power and economic strength and will soon decline due to ideological, ecological, economic, hostile international and demographic conditions, as well as its population will rapidly age and will halve to 750 million by 2050 will, , would no longer be a young, attractive consumer market, there will be a shortage of skilled workers, will have lower growth rates, yes, perhaps also due to climate change, the north-eastern plain with its agricultural areas and 400 million inhabitants would become uninhabitable, with the associated mass migration within China. Since the CCP and Xi knew this, they were now trying to compensate for this in foreign policy and nationalism, which would mean more aggressive behavior and also a possible imminent Taiwan war before the historic “window of opportunity” closes for China. What do you think of the peak power theory?
Professor Van Ess: I don’t believe in the Peak Power theory either. Korea and Taiwan have not peaked in their growth either. In fact, there are two factors that are dangerous for China’s development. The first is demographics, which mainly means that China can no longer produce cheap products. However, this is a long-standing trend that Korea and Taiwan have also been exposed to. The same goes for Japan, of course. However, there was a “summit” there at the end of the 1980s that was related to the real estate bubble. I guess that’s why the fight against China’s real estate bubble, which was inflated under Hu Jintao, is the focus of Chinese politics. The question of how well you can do a soft landing is of great importance to the country. The American trade war against China is the second factor. The American attempt – for military reasons – to cut off China’s ability to independently produce high-quality industrial goods is a huge problem for the country’s economy. The chip sector in particular is making headlines. Here, too, the question is how things will turn out. However, this has nothing to do with a natural „summit“ but with a summit accepted and sometimes also provoked by the opposing side. The question is whether the American strategy will work. Of course, this can backfire if the Chinese have enough well-trained professionals loyal to the PRC due to increasing anti-Asianism in the US. The computer science departments in many American universities are firmly in Chinese hands. The climate argument is too speculative for me. As early as the 1980s, I heard that people were considering moving the capital from Beijing to Nanjing, since there was no longer any groundwater in the north. That never happened, and I’d rather leave such scenarios to the Last Generations.
Global Review: Other experts claim that precisely because of these problems, China is trying to use the New Silk Road to compensate for possible growth losses and to create new growth markets with the New Silk Road, which will at least maintain its economic power despite the negative factors mentioned and thus be able to solve it ? But China has now transitioned from the international circular economy under Deng to the so-called dual circular economy under Xi and also into a quasi-war economy and a „protracted war“ (Xi Jinping) in the face of the Sino-American conflict? Can this concept, if it is one, work out?
Professor van Ess: Of course, the New Silk Road was a major infrastructure project with which China wanted to secure influence on the one hand, and on the other hand stimulate the economy in the countries involved so that they could become a market for Chinese products and, conversely, China could become a market for these countries . Growth was hoped for from this. I think the story about the quasi-war economy is exaggerated.
Global Review: How do you assess China’s role in the Ukraine war and its alliance with Russia? Is Russia still an equal partner or, after its defeats in Ukraine and Kherson, is it not now a partner on par with corns? It is true that it has not yet delivered any weapons and has also spoken out against the use of nuclear weapons, but otherwise it repeatedly emphasizes its iron-clad adherence to this axis? A few experts, such as John Mearsheimer, believed for some time that China was becoming too powerful from Russia’s point of view, that it also saw Russia’s Far East threatened by China and that China could then move west or at least become neutral in the western conflict with China. Some Western experts are now hoping for the latter from China, and even a mediating role in the Ukraine conflict. How realistic is that? Representatives of systems theory consider this to be impossible due to the authoritarian nature of both regimes. Professor van Ess: Mearsheimer’s view was probably the basis of Trump’s policy, who wanted the United States to get closer to Russia and to separate Russia from its ties with China. Both countries share a long border. Having no problems with this is extremely advantageous for both countries. In this respect, I believe that the voices in Russia that are afraid of China’s rise (there are of course) are not policy-determining. Neither Ukraine nor the US would accept China as a mediator in the Ukraine conflict, so I’m not very optimistic about such a role. Global Review: After the Xi-Biden meeting in Bali and the DDP’s election defeat in Taiwan, is there now a chance or sign of some relaxation between the US and China? How do you assess the time before and after the G20 meeting, also with regard to the Korean question, where there are now new tensions again, which even wants to test ICBMs, while the USA claims that China has doubled its number of ICBMs to 400 and to 1,000 by 2030, threatening strategic nuclear deterrence and the balance of power.
Professor Van Ess: It’s good that Xi and Biden finally spoke with each other. How much that changes politics in both countries is the question, but the Democrats in the US must achieve economic success in order to win the next presidential election. That works better with China than against it, even if you can of course try to score points domestically with harsh rhetoric against China. In the western world, the DPP’s electoral defeat was immediately ascribed to its local political character, so that nobody would get the idea that many Taiwanese are not enthusiastic about their president’s independence rhetoric. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan at the beginning of August must have caused massive damage to Tsai Ing-wen, because in my opinion most Taiwanese believe in coexistence with the People’s Republic of China and are not open to provocations. The election result could therefore be a signal for a certain relaxation.
The North Korean missiles were, of course, also a response to US-Korean maneuvers. Who is provoking whom is difficult to judge in the northeastern hemisphere for a military-political layman like me. In the USA, too, there is of course a babble of voices that is not easy to resolve. I would assume the reference to the ICBM is coming from the corner of the American military hoping that Biden will continue the containment strategy with tough economic measures against China.
Global Review: The German government had already published an Indo-Pacific strategy, which became the blueprint for the EU Indo-Pacific strategy. The main idea is diversification away from China and free trade agreements with ASEAN and other Asian countries and closer cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in terms of security policy. China’s participation in the Port of Hamburg and the Scholz visit have already led to a heated debate and tug-of-war regarding the German government’s China strategy, which Baerbock and Habeck want to present in 2023. Scholz’s first visit to Asia was to Japan, then first to China and then to the ASEAN together with Habeck. The new motto is not. Decoupling, but only that one does not want to make oneself even more dependent on China, but to diversify. „China plus“ was issued as a new formula. At the same time, however, it has now become known that Habeck’s employees in the Ministry of Economic Affairs are assuming an annexation of Taiwan by 2027 at the latest and want to orient themselves accordingly. What do you expect from the federal government’s new China strategy and how do you want to assess the Scholz visit, which was even praised by Biden?
Professor van Ess: The question is who is responsible for writing this China strategy and who will prevail. The first draft was pierced, some say, by the Greens, who wanted to annoy Scholz after his trip to China. The Greens (with the active support of the FDP) are of course also spreading the horror scenarios regarding Taiwan in order to put the SPD under pressure. Of course, Green Party specialists don’t know any more than most people about when the PRC might attempt to annex Taiwan — and if it currently intends to do so at all. So far, I’ve always assumed that both the PRC and Taiwan are interested in the status quo because anything else would harm both sides. Of course I could be wrong about that. But Habeck’s employees can also be wrong – this probability is not very small. You won’t be surprised if I say now that my respect for Scholz has grown significantly since he started this journey.
Global Review: Now, in addition to the trade dispute and the sanctions against Russia and China, a trade dispute between the USA and the EU also seems to be in the beginning due to Biden’s huge anti-inflation package, which is now to be followed by a Buy European Act with a rediscovery of industrial policy and associated state investments as a counter-reaction . Macron used quite drastic words during his US visit to Biden. He called US subsidies „super aggressive“ and that Biden´s program would divide the West. He had already described NATO as „brain dead“ and had meanwhile withdrawn the French ambassador to the USA due to AUKUS. There was no sign of that anymore, but apparently he wants to put pressure on Biden. In Germany, after CETA, the discussion about free trade agreements with the USA and Mercusor as an alternative to RCEP is starting again, which should be part of the diversification and growth strategy. However, the EU-ASEAN free trade agreement and one with India are not yet in sight, any plans with China are also frozen for the time being. At least the international courts of arbitration would be removed from CETA in order to appease the anti-TTIP opponents, who at the time organized a huge demonstration of 250,000 people from the Greens, trade unions, SPD, leftists and NGOs. But Canada has a better reputation, is not considered predatory capitalism as much as the USA, and also since Trump. Do you think the global economy will now cluster more into trading blocs with heightened protectionism, or could there be a revitalization of free trade and globalization, albeit in an adapted form?
Professor Van Ess In any case, there are very strong forces that would like to push this regrouping into the old blocks. Apparently, the USA is at the forefront. The Ukraine war is also causing us to do exactly what Donald Trump wanted us to do: Buy your gas in the USA and join our bloc again better than to have these arbitrary games with Russia and China. Of course, these make economic sense for Germany, but the USA are left out. But the question is whether this policy will really work. The iPhone is 80 percent made in China. The Foxconn company from Taiwan and its production facilities in mainland China play a decisive role here. If you really want to unbundle it all, it will be an extremely expensive process, which will involve inflation. One may admire the attempt by the USA to have TSMC set up its own chip production facility in Phoenix, but the question is whether such a protectionist policy will really be successful in the long term. It may also be that you have to increase taxes in the USA for this; and that’s not popular. As for TTIP: The Greens are now in government, so they will certainly see their old opposition to TTIP as nothing more than phantom pain. They will certainly support such agreements with the „free world“ in the future. The question is how long-term the current „turning point“ actually is, or whether it will not turn out in two or three years, when the Ukraine war will hopefully be over or frozen, that the construction of political and economic blocs will not suit anyone serves properly.
Global Review: The Greens and the FDP tend to emphasize the systemic contrast and a value-oriented approach in the China strategy. What about the AFD, Left Party, CDU and CSU? Let’s assume a different coalition, say black-green or Jamaica or black-red, wouldn’t the contradictions regarding China strategy perpetuate and appear in a new form?
Professor Van Ess: In my opinion, both the CDU (less so the CSU) and the AFD are relatively close to the positions of the Greens and FDP, the Left Party of course not, but that doesn’t count at the moment either. I would assume that the CDU under Merz, who claims to be an Atlanticist, would try to close ranks with the Greens and the FDP on China. However, I could also imagine that she would get into trouble with her business wing.
Global Review: A number of media now saw the potential for regime changes, the fall of Xi or even the CP China in the corona protests? How do you assess the mass protests and do you think there are still circles in the West that are hoping for regime change after the experiences of the Arab Spring and Tiananmen in 1989? Or is it more about containment or coopetition?
Professor van Ess: The CCP has apparently released some pressure from the boiler. In this respect, I do not think that a regime change is imminent in China. Eventually, Xi could fall (and I don’t think so), but that doesn’t mean the CCP will fall. There are definitely forces in the West that are hoping for regime change. But whether that would be good for us is another question. Should the economy in China go down massively – and that could be the result of regime change – then there would be the next big wave of refugees.
Global Review: What do you expect from US China policy in the medium term? Will there be any easing or will the conflict escalate, be it under Biden or a re-elected Trump or Ron De Santis or Mike Pompeo or any other US Republican President? What do you think China would have to do to get back to a kind of peaceful coexistence with the US?
Professor Van Ess: I don’t see any major differences between the individual politicians you list on this issue. I think the Biden-led Democrats won’t turn the tweaks any further until the end of 2023 (although they’re already tightened pretty tight), but will start rhetorically beefing up for the presidential campaign from 2024 onwards. Of course, China could make commitments to the status quo with Taiwan. That would definitely help. It would also have to try to reduce the trade surplus with the US and announce it loudly.
Global Review: Apart from the timing of a possible conquest of Taiwan, above all military options are played through, the strength of the PLA is assessed differently, the type of possible warfare from a naval blockade to a Pacific War, the existing or non-existent number of amphibious vehicles, logistics, rockets. Warships, armament technology, comparisons with the US military, yes vice versa, the Chinese military strategist Chen Guodong once discussed his fantasies of conquering Taiwan in Global Review, which culminated in bomber Harris and Douhet-style short-range missile terror attacks on Taiwan, which undermined the Taiwanese’s will to defend themselves ,would break their will and fighting spirit and would force them to give in and surrender. Nevertheless, one point remains rather underexamined: that the CCP, through its United Front and infiltration of Taiwanese society, the military and the secret services, creates a kind of internal 5th column that, like Sun Tze in The Art of War, uses 8 types of spies aiming at conquest not from outside but from within without war—perhaps with a little pressure from outside, in order then to bring about capitulation from within by means of spies and sympathizers, or, as has happened mnay times in Chinese history, that internal forces of subversion open the city gate. The draft law of the DDP for the death penalty for military espionage and the cleansing of the Taiwanese secret service and military of Chinese spies is an expression of this, especially since a former KMT-affiliated military man was upset that there were open discussions within the KMT and its sympathizers in the military as to whether a war should be waged with Taiwan and the 1992 consensus, or if it was npt better to unite with China on its terms and capitulate before war breaks out. Interestingly, US Chief of Staff Milley has also claimed that he was in contact with his Chinese colleagues when Trump had to leaeve office and assured them that if Trump, in a last-ditch act of desperation, wanted to start a Sino-American war, he would not carry out his orders . How likely do you think it is that the CCP could use this Sun Tze variant and how loyal and united are the Taiwanese military, KMT and US military in case of a Sino-American war or its prevention? Could reunification perhaps still take place peacefully and without war by means of espionage?
Professor Van Ess: I’m not really competent to answer that question, but to be honest I don’t really believe in Chinese infiltration of Taiwan. That does not work. There are too many patriots in Taiwan too. The interesting thing is that the Taiwanese economy is actually completely dependent on trade with the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan’s prosperity is based on exchange with China, but the young generation in Taiwan still doesn’t want anything to do with the People’s Republic of China. This sentiment seems to me to be so strong that I believe that attempts at infiltration by the Chinese are doomed to fail, paradoxical as it may seem.
Global Review: How do you think about the coverage of China in the German media? While the FAZ still has its own China correspondent like Friederike Böge, the Yippen media group around the Munich newspaper Münchner Merkur has largely outsourced its China reporting to German translations of the US magazine Foreign Policy and ChinaTable, while Focus has German translations of The Economist and a person by the name of “Chinaversteher” established. ARD and ZDF do not seem to have any prominent Chinese correspondents either. ARD Bildungs Alpha has Dr. Saskja Hieber as China institution, BILD and Springer, on the other hand, is very biased, especially since they also brought Joshua Wong to Berlin at the time to proclaim Hong Kong as the new frontline city in a New Cold War with China, like Berlin against the Sovjet Union in times of the Cold war. How do you feel about China reporting, where should we pay our attention to and what should we consume if we want to get a realistic picture of China?
Professor Van Ess: Well, that is indeed a sad chapter. There is hardly any real China expertise in German newspapers, and the fact that the Focus affords a China understander who really doesn’t seem to understand anything about China, but rather represents the Washington perspective (he’s part of a think tank there), is really a sign of poverty. After all, the NZZ has more China reporting, which, however, also reports quite biased. China Table may be of interest to people who do not deal with China professionally and who perceive most things differently. I think one should just read the newspapers that one otherwise enjoys. There you will somehow get to read the most important news about China. Then you simply have to deduct the value judgments of German (and other western journalism) and not allow yourself to be influenced by the opinions that always appear between the lines. Just take in the news and erase the ideology! I know it’s not easy, but I think it’s the only way.