Olga Lomová: Control of the Digital Infrastructure Will Enable China To Impose Its Demands By Force

The basic tenet of the Chinese reading of global history is that China has always been a major power, a leader in global progress, and the source of a number of key inventions. Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, its leading position was unjustly usurped by Western powers, sinologist Olga Lomová tells Robert Schuster in this interview.

ROBERT SCHUSTER: How do you see China’s expansion into Central Europe? As a sinologist, you ought to see this as a positive development…

OLGA LOMOVÁ: The fact that I am a sinologist does not necessarily mean that I can’t have a critical perspective on the subject of my interest. Sinologists shouldn’t be expected to welcome everything that comes from China, particularly in the realm of politics. Chinese influence in Central Europe, which I have observed for several years now, must be seen as part and parcel of global processes. Even though many people won’t admit it, we are only a tiny part of the globalized world—we are neither the center of Europe or an isolated entity but rather part of a single world in which China represents a great power that aspires to acquire even more weight in order to impose its demands on everyone else.

Is China pursuing some sort of covert agenda?

It is indeed, and not particularly a covert one, if you read Chinese newspapers and pay proper attention. Unfortunately, most analysts tend to underestimate the media rhetoric in China and until recently failed to ascribe sufficient importance to political speeches, editorials and, crucially, to appearances by the Communist Party Secretary-General Xi Jinping.

All these pronouncements are quite open about presenting the Chinese agenda vis-à-vis the world, which goes as follows: China aspires to be a leading force in globalization and, at the same time, a force that will set the rules of the game for the entire world, a world that is interconnected under its leadership. The commentaries usually frame this in rhetoric of historical justice, emphasizing that China has a historic claim to such a position.

The basic tenet of the Chinese reading of global history states that China has always been a major power, a leader of global progress, a place where a number of key inventions originated, but the Western powers unjustly usurped its leading position over the course of the nineteenth century. So the choice of words used by Chinese commentaries indicates that things are now returning to the normal state of affairs, China is reclaiming the position that was always rightly its own, in other words, to be the principal power in the world.

Is there anything positive about China’s expansion into Europe?

Those who try to see something positive in it are the economists and others who see
it as a chance for the speedy development of infrastructure and who see it, in purely technical, non-ideological, economic and pragmatic terms, as an opportunity to make the world even more interconnected and provide a fresh boost to global trade.

However, this raises several questions. I believe there is no such thing as a neutral economic base but rather that everything is always interconnected, has wider repercussions and has to be seen in its political and security context. Economic projects can be, and indeed invariably are, of an ideological nature, wherein power interests play a key role.

That also means that ideology and power relations ultimately always leave a mark on the place where a given infrastructure is being developed. I wouldn’t dare to predict whether or how a Chinese infrastructural project might boost the economies of some developing countries. However, I am sure that it will leave its imprint on the society that uses it.

Right now I see the Chinese imprint as something negative. Furthermore, I am not sure if the continuing intensification of global trade, as envisaged by Chinese planners, is the sole right path, if for no other reason than because the world is overpopulated and resources are scarce, which raises the question: can extensive development make an obviously positive contribution to our future?

I believe there is no such thing as a neutral economic base but rather that everything is always interconnected, has wider repercussions and has to be seen in its political and security context.

The Chinese vision is rather mechanistic—everything will be interconnected, there will be an ever-increasing circulation of goods, glottalization will keep driving the wheels of the economy, especially the Chinese economy, of course. However, this vision completely suppresses the question of whether this will, in fact, result in sustainable, long-term development for the world.

And, last but not least, there is the lopsided relationship between the Western, open market and the Chinese market which is subordinated to the decisions and changing strategies of the communist party as it continually defends its leading role. A long-term surplus in foreign trade between China and the rest of the world also demonstrates who will ultimately benefit most from the New Silk Road.

It is often said that Chinese companies can build infrastructure faster and more cheaply…

Construction in China admittedly advances much faster than in our country. But it occurs under authoritarian conditions. If a sufficiently influential local official sets his mind on building a road somewhere, the road will be built even if it means that the people living there have to be forcibly relocated.

This might make some construction companies envious because they might encounter resistance from landowners, the local population and environmental organizations who oppose construction. The directive Chinese method is very fast on the one hand, while on the other, it can easily happen that a completed project with a negative impact on the local population might later prove to be totally unproductive.

China also uses various kinds of favorable loans to entice investors— what do you see as a greater risk: will it be roads and railways that will bring even more Chinese goods to Europe, or longer-term commitments in the form of loans or leases?

It is all interconnected. And in this context, something less obvious needs to be mentioned. Once things are strongly intertwined in economic terms, it is not easy to disentangle them later. This kind of interconnectedness in Europe is based on an idea of global trade that follows certain shared free-market rules, with any regulation also based on shared principles. We share these rules and everyone starts from a level playing field.

In the case of the New Silk Road, on the other hand, we see an economic intertwining of countries with completely different conditions, both in terms of power and politics, whereby one party in this relationship, China, is more interested in politics than economic profit. That can lead to a situation where the economy of weaker states is held hostage by the country controlling the infrastructure. This also applies to digital infrastructure, a field into which Chinese companies are also trying to expand.

The Chinese vision is rather mechanistic— everything will be interconnected, there will be an ever-increasing circulation of goods. However, this vision completely suppresses the question of whether this will, in fact, result in sustainable, long-term development for the world.

Should Chinese companies be excluded from tenders for fast Internet service provision?

Yes, they should—simply because the Chinese state is not making any secret of the fact that—if need be—its companies are expected to be primarily at their country’s service at all times. This is not about whether someone will listen in to our private phone calls, but rather a chance to control the entire infrastructure. That enables them to impose certain decisions by force.

How do you explain the fact that quite a few former high-ranking Czech politicians, including several prime ministers, have landed jobs with Chinese companies or have become lobbyists for Chinese companies?

For me this is a sign of an underdeveloped democratic culture on the part of our politicians. I think this culture is better developed among the citizenry in general. But I think that it also shows a complete lack of self-respect on their part.

Surely a top politician and state representative cannot be on the payroll of a company with a murky background, one that, as it has now transpired, is de facto state-owned or nationalized. CEFC, the Chinese company for which many of these people work, has always been really opaque: one glance at their unprofessionally designed website will tell you that something is not quite right there.

Unfortunately, we have similar examples from Western Europe. Suffice it to recall former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who started working for Russian energy companies as soon as he left the office.

Over the past thirty years, Czech foreign policy on China has undergone an enormous change, from Havel’s critical approach to open adoration on the part of some of the highest state officials. How far can it go?

At a certain point, we threw overboard the capital we had built up over many years based on our approach to foreign policy. Nowadays the Czech Republic is indistinguishable from any other post-communist country.

We can only speculate as to the real motive behind this turn. It might have been a mix of corruption, naivety and political pressure, coming from the top echelons of the state. Of course, this is very difficult to prove but nevertheless, it is obvious that it was totally unprofessional.

After all, we can’t be in a strategic partnership with China and comply with absolutely everything China wants us to do while being a privileged partner of the US, a NATO member, part of EU structures, and so on. These two approaches are irreconcilable.

The fact that those of our politicians who are responsible for the change of direction in our country’s foreign relations didn’t realize it at the time—in fact, they believed they could have it both ways—just goes to show how naïve they were, even if some of them may have genuinely believed that the West is not worth the effort and that we ought to turn to the East instead.

The influence of PPF, the investment company run by the richest man in the Czech Republic, Petr Kellner, has long been documented and this company has definitely put Czech politicians under huge pressure. However, I think we may have hit rock bottom and are starting to bounce back, and that people are beginning to pay more attention to these issues.

Do you think China is actively trying to divide the EU, for example with regular summits such as the “16+1”, held in Dubrovnik this April? And could it succeed?

Yes, it could. I first wrote about “16+1” in 2014 when I spotted a tiny notice in our press but had no idea what it was. Our government took part in the project in a kind of underhand way. In the end I had to look for further information in the Chinese press. Although the annual “16+1” summits appear to be completely pointless and innocuous, various kinds of memoranda are being signed there, which the Chinese side could exploit when the right time comes.

 

If you sign a memorandum on preferential cooperation in nuclear industry, you shouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese demand they should be allowed to finish the construction of a nuclear power station without having to tender for it.

At the same time, I believe that “16+1” serves as a platform for a long-term Chinese strategy that aims to forge contacts on various levels of Czech politics and state administration, gradually establishing an environment conducive to wielding its influence. China has proceeded with great patience and does not hesitate
to invest massive resources.

There is a constant stream of delegations travelling to China, all expenses paid. And we are beginning to see some concrete ramifications in European politics. Suffice it to recall 2016 when Greece—which has since joined “16+1” as its seventeenth member— blocked an EU resolution demanding that China respect the decisions of internation- al arbitration on territorial disputes over the South China Sea. The discussion about recognizing China as a market economy is also an example of this way of influencing international decision-making.

In the case of the New Silk Road, we see an economic intertwining of countries with completely different conditions, both in terms of power and politics, whereby China, is more interested in political than economic profit.

China is very keen on such recognition, even though not only is it not a market economy but more recently there has been a trend towards reinforcing the state’s influence in the private sector and we have seen the renationalization of some companies.

Furthermore, a number of EU decisions have gradually created conditions that are more or less advantageous for Chinese trade and politics. In this respect, our country, as an active member of the “16+1” grouping under China’s auspices, could turn into an unreliable partner for Western Europe.

Does the Chinese model of globalization leave any room for anyone else, such as Europe or the US?

Interestingly enough, the US is neither here nor there from the Chinese perspective. From his speeches, you learn about President Xi Jinping’s vision of bringing the whole world together as a “community of shared fate”. This may sound like an empty cliché but it is very fitting. Incidentally, the same wording featured in the first constitution of 1954, with the communist party promising to create a “community of shared fate” to ensure a safe living space for all citizens of China as well as for non-communist political forces.

This specific wording demonstrates that these are not just a few casually uttered words but a flashback to the policy of a united front under communist party leadership. Through the optics of Xi Jinping’s words, globalization under Chinese leadership is reminiscent of the gathering of all forces sympathetic to China under its helm. The only ones entirely absent from all this are the Americans. The New Silk Road leaves the United States out completely.

And what about Russia? What is its role in the Chinese strategy?

Relations between China and Russia are complex but the two countries seem to have shared out roles among themselves and are acting together right now.

What is the situation in China itself? Have any changes occurred there in recent years?

The role of the Secretary-General and the people in his power circle has been strengthened, and ideological work has also intensified. The practice of political training and of involving everyone in the political discourse has been reinstated, including the demand that people should explicitly endorse the communist party’s political goals.

The Chinese themselves say that political education among the population has not been so prevalent since the Cultural Revolution. Xi Jinping has succeeded in getting rid of potential opponents at the highest level, and persecution has reached a degree similar to that last seen in the early 1990s following the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

The communist party is flaunting its huge strength and influence. At the same time, however, the state for”. Six months later he was suspended from the university and placed under investigation for a disciplinary offense.

So not even the much-discussed Internet surveillance and the so-called social credits ensure complete control? Apparently not. I have watched all the drastic measures the Chinese communist party has introduced to safeguard its authority while, at the same time, admiring the inventiveness and courage of some Chinese people.

For example, four young men from Sichuan have recently been sentenced to several years’ imprisonment for “provoking trouble” by recalling the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Their crime consisted of having produced “commemorative unsellable bottles of liquor” three years has responded to many things in a quite hysterical way, which is evidence of a degree of uncertainty.

The regime is extremely afraid that a protest movement could again emerge, for instance, at universities. The role of party secretaries, right down to the lowest level, is being strengthened again. Everyone is perfectly aware what kind of self-censorship they need to exercise if they wish to hold on to their jobs, and everyone does it quite consensually, in spite of critical voices that surface from time to time.

For example, last August Xu Zhangrun, a distinguished law professor at Tsinghua University, published on his blog a critique of the conditions under Xi Jinping, entitled “What we are afraid of now and what we are hoping for”. Six months later he was suspended from the university and placed under investigation for a disciplinary offense.

So not even the much-discussed Internet surveillance and the so-called social credits ensure complete control? Apparently not. I have watched all the drastic measures the Chinese communist party has introduced to safeguard its authority while, at the same time, admiring the inventiveness and courage of some Chinese people.

For example, four young men from Sichuan have recently been sentenced to several years’ imprisonment for “provoking trouble” by recalling the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Their crime consisted of having produced “commemorative unsellable bottles of liquor” three years ago, with a label that contained a pun on the suppressed movement of 1989 and also featuring a variation on the iconic photograph of the young man facing the tanks. So, on the one hand, the regime is incredibly powerful, as the persecution in Xinjiang shows, but internally it is very unstable.

We can’t be in a strategic partnership with China and comply with absolutely everything China wants us to do while being a privileged partner of the US, a NATO member, part of EU structures.

Do you think that China’s enormous expansion worldwide gives it internal legitimacy?

It certainly contributes to national pride, thus helping to reinforce the authority of the communist party. And it certainly strengthens the country’s legitimacy and self-image, in the sense that once weak China has become a power whose decisions affect the whole world. And it is also about exploring new markets and natural resources, about China’s economic growth, which is the foundation of its power and current status. Once growth slows down, as is happening right now, the danger of unrest and protest is on the cards.

If you sign a memorandum on preferential cooperation in nuclear industry, you shouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese demand they should be allowed to finish the construction of a nuclear power station.

When, following the crackdown of the protest movement in 1989, China faced growing criticism because of its violations of human rights, Beijing argued that it has its own values based on Confucianism. Is this still the case?

This is quite ironic, because one of the slogans used by the May 4th movement of 1919—the mass protest of Chinese intellectuals calling for national independence, democracy and scholarship on which the country’s modernization was built—was “Down with Confucianism”. We might say that the entire spiritual and intellectual transformation of society, including the education reforms of the 1920s and the creation of modern institutions, was based on the premise that the traditional state ideology of Confucianism was not suited to the needs of the modern world.

Communists have always been among the most vocal critics of Confucianism. Yet after 2000 some communist party officials started dusting it off because they saw it as an instrument of fostering national pride and, at the same time, curbing “unhealthy individualism”. Strictly speaking, rather than a return to the ancient local tradition, this turn to Confucianism was a validation of the post-war development which followed the Soviet example of building state and society.

The fundamental difference between Confucianism as proclaimed by China’s communist party and the ancient Chinese philosophy consists in the fact that Confucianism is a way of thinking that views human beings not in the context of relations between the individual and a large state collective, but within the context of family and its generations.

How should the West and the European Union in particular deal with China? Do Europeans have any tricks up their sleeves that might work? US President Donald Trump has at least a “stick” in the form of tariffs…

My personal view is that the EU or, infact, any country doing trade with China, always ought to treat it as an equal, instead of positioning itself as the weaker party, the one asking for a favor, while insisting that all international standards and treaties are respected. And they ought to act jointly and be united, not through regional post-communist platforms for trading with China. That sounds simple but I am aware that it is not simple at all.

China is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) although it doesn’t meet the conditions for membership—how was that even possible? This, in my view, was a fundamental mistake. In 2001, when China was accepted into the WTO, many believed that within ten years, as its market economy developed, it would be completely transformed, that it would introduce rule of law and become democratic. But the reality is very different: already back then a number of independent Chinese commentators predicted that it would mean the exact opposite—a strengthening of the communist party’s position.

So does that mean that the US President is actually right to force China to the negotiating table and to respect rules by threatening sanctions and tariffs?

It does seem to work in some way. But the question “What impact might a real trade war between China and the US have on the American economy?”, is not one that I can answer. At the same time, however, it demonstrates this key interconnectedness within the global economic system. I don’t know if there is a danger that all of us will become so strongly intertwined with China that we will lose the ability to negotiate on behalf of our interests.

At its last session the Chinese parliament passed a bill more welcoming to foreign investment, in an unusually accelerated procedure. Can this initiative be taken seriously? Can it work in practice?

Well, this needs a few additional remarks. This bill does seem to facilitate certain things, not least because it includes an exhaustive list of industries in which foreign investment is limited. This creates more certainty because until now no such thing existed, so that a foreign investor had no way of telling if he had embarked on a hopeless venture, discovering at some later point that it is, in fact, impossible.

It also seems that the rules for setting up joint ventures are loosening up. The bill includes a provision specifically aimed at enticing technological companies through special advantages. This is quite understandable since China needs to acquire state-of-the-art technologies. On the other hand, there is also a provision on expropriation, which is framed in terms of the state interest.

The general legal environment in China is another matter—in particular, the supersedure of the communist party over the law. The situation in China is very complex. On the one hand, there are the interests of the state, followed by regional interests, and in addition those of local party officials who are invariably involved in big business and can easily influence court decisions.

China has a powerful legal community, many of whose members were educated at foreign universities and have until recently striven to promote the idea of an independent judiciary. Not necessarily in order to defend dissidents or to try and undermine the party’s leading role, but rather because they wanted society to function by rules that are respected by everyone: otherwise there is enormous scope for corruption and legal uncertainty. Huge public pressure has made even the communist party embark, gingerly, on some experiments introducing “rule of law”, especially in dealing with trade and civil disputes.

Through the optics of Xi Jinping’s words, globalization under Chinese leadership is reminiscent of the gathering of all forces sympathetic to China under its helm. The only ones entirely absent are the Americans.

But since Xi Jinping came to power, China has returned to the stage when it is openly stated that efforts to make the judiciary independent of the communist party and the principle of the division of power in general, are just an attempt by imperialist powers to subvert China. Under these circumstances, foreign companies—regardless of the most recent legislation—find themselves on very shaky ground in China. The new bill does send a positive signal: it is a small step forward, but it doesn’t remove the elementary uncertainty for foreign investors.

There is a fundamental difference between this situation and the conditions enjoyed by Chinese companies in Europe. In this respect we ought to exert much more pressure on China and make the entry of Chinese companies, especially major ones (often with a sizeable state share) into our market conditional on the provision of equal conditions for our companies in China. And I believe that in the case of industries of national strategic interest it would be appropriate to consider restrictions on some Chinese companies.

Do you think the Chinese communists might go even further at some point in the future?

I do. I think there is always the potential for a pragmatist to emerge from the communist party ranks who will realise that the current policy—the permanent surveillance of its own citizens, the country’s unpopularity in the world, the return to strengthening the state’s control over the private sector—is self-destructive for China. I believe there are people within the communist party apparatus who know that this can’t work over the long run.

To survive, a political system that combines one-party rule with a globally interconnected market economy needs flexibility and the ability to adapt. This is another reason why Europe ought to insist on its principles and values.

Is the Western lifestyle very attractive for the Chinese public?

I’m sure that it is and that the current leadership is aware of this, too. This is one of the reasons why, since coming to power, Xi Jinping has stepped up ideological work and why he has been stressing, in one speech after another, the importance of “developing self-confidence” and promoting the belief that socialism with Chinese features is the best system there is.

The regime is extremely afraid that a protest movement could again emerge, for instance, at universities. The role of party secretaries, right down to the lowest level, is being strengthened again.

These are also indications that many people find the Western way of life and values much more attractive. Suffice it to take a look at Chinese popular culture, which is, of course, derived primarily from its American counterpart. Communist ideologues are aware of this and there have even been attempts to exploit popular culture and turn it into a mouthpiece of the party’s ideas. I would be very interested to see if this works. Xi Jinping says that the success of the communist party is based on the struggle for people’s hearts.


Olga Lomová

studied Sinology—Oriental Studies at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University in Prague. She has been teaching here since 1987. In 2014, she was appointed Professor of Sinology and Head of the Institute of East Asian Studies of the Faculty of Philosophy. She has also been heading, since 1990, the Chiang Ching-kuovy Foundation International Sinological Centre of Charles University. She has studied topics at the intersection of philology and cultural and intellectual history of China (image of nature in pre-Song Chinese literature, biographical and historiographical writing in ancient and medieval China, literary aesthetics). In the Deconstruction and Construction of National Traditions and Science in China, she investigates the transformation of traditional Chinese culture at the turn of the twentieth century. She has consistently studied the history of European Sinology and questions of the methodology of Sinology/ Chinese Studies. She lectures on pre-modern Chinese literature, modern poetry, history of contacts between Europe and China, on the tradition-modernity relationship and on on the ideology of the People’s Republic of China. She has translated Chinese literature and commented on Chinese ideology, politics and Czech-Chinese relations.

Robert Schuster

Robert Schuster is the managing editor of Aspen Review Central Europe. He was the editor-in-chief of Mezinárodní politika monthly from 2005 to 2015, and a correspondent of Austrian daily Der Standard in Czech Republic from 2000 till 2012. He is a foreign correspondent of Lidové noviny daily since 2015, where he covers news reports from German-speaking countries. He is a regular guest in commentaries broadcast by Český rozhlas Plus.

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