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Katrin Büchenbacher     2022/04/14

«The Chinese are more assertive»

Mr Boller, why did you want to go to China in 1976? Were you part of the Maoist student movement in Zurich?
I was interested in China since I was a student in the 1960s, at which time it was bogged down in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. We students were interested in the contrast between the Chinese model and the Soviet model. I never had anything to do with the Western Maoists. They were completely out of touch with the world, pushing the fight against Mao Zedong’s designated successor, the military commander Lin Biao, in front of Swiss factory gates in the early morning, for example.

You arrived in Beijing shortly after Mao's death in September 1976. Was the city as you had imagined it?
I had imagined a troubled Beijing. Many people had even warned me not to travel to this politically turbulent country. However, there was practically no reliable knowledge in the West at that time. Reports of violent Red Guards who rose up against an imagined class enemy, especially intellectuals, and at times paralysed the country had made me wary. So I arrived with mixed feelings, but curiosity clearly prevailed.
In reality, Beijing airport gave an impression of calm in the evening upon arrival. I remember a single, simple reception building with a lit portrait of Mao, then a half-hour, lonely journey on a rural street into the capital.
It soon became obvious that China had reached a critical turning point after Mao’s death. The devastation of the Cultural Revolution was still omnipresent, universities were closed for normal lessons, but there was also a growing conviction that fundamental changes had become inevitable.

Was it a coincidence that you were given access to isolated China right after Mao's death?
It was a biographical coincidence, so to speak. I had just finished my studies in sociology and philosophy and was looking for an opportunity to learn more about the country on the ground. At the same time, the University of Foreign Languages in Beijing expressed a need. They wanted to prepare professors of German studies who had just returned from “re-education” in the countryside for a return to regular teaching. So I unexpectedly and temporarily became a coach to university lecturers who, incidentally, taught me my first Chinese characters on their part. But you’re right, a visit to China under Mao would have been unproductive, even dangerous. Only after the rehabilitation by Deng Xiaoping in the summer of 1977 did revolutionary changes occur.

In 1981, Deng Xiaoping adopted a resolution on the history of the Communist Party. Why was the resolution so important?
I still have vivid memories of the "historic resolution" of 1981 under Deng Xiaoping. The debate on it lasted at least three years. For Chinese relations, it was an extremely sharp distinction from Mao's ultra-leftist policies during the Cultural Revolution. It made it unequivocally clear that the class struggle had been held onto for too long, economic development had been badly affected, and countless people – including Deng – had been unjustly persecuted and humiliated. Overall, then, a radical change of course which probably only Deng was capable of at the time and which then made the subsequent successes possible.

The history of the Chinese Communist Party was not always marked by successes. I am thinking of the Tiananmen Square massacre, corruption, pollution, food scandals. Despite all this, the Party remains firmly in control today. Why?
The Party has been guilty of serious wrong-doings which cannot be redressed. Even the historic resolution of 1981 fell far short of providing the transparency that would be desirable regarding these.
Nevertheless, life had to go on one way or another. The reforms initiated by Deng, mainly aimed at rebuilding the economy, were consolidated by his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao and were significantly expanded with the inclusion of free-market elements. That is the only way to understand that China was able to move from being a poor country to being the world's second-largest economy in just forty years. On this basis, Xi Jinping can take on the new system rivalry with the West with great confidence.

I also noticed the growing confidence during my time in China. Many of my colleagues and friends saw their country as the equal of the USA and wanted to be recognised as such.
In recent times, two developments have indeed made the Chinese more assertive and the West more reflective. Firstly, the USA is facing a rival, for the first time in more than a hundred years, which exceeds 60 percent of its economic power. This is something not achieved by the German Empire during the First World War or by the fascist Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan combined, and certainly not by the Soviet Union at the time of the Cold War. Secondly, and perhaps more shockingly, this rival is a socialist country and therefore a rival system. For the first time, a socialist regime is creating not war and misery, but rather prosperity and security.

What does Xi Jinping want on the world stage? Hegemony in Asia and the rest of the world?
China wants to be respected in its individual character as a socialist country, led by the Communist Party, with its own, deeply Chinese values and traditions. Not as a hegemon, but as a partner on an equal footing. Ideally, the two camps – Western capitalism and Chinese socialism – would then have to compete over who can give their people a better life, both materially and from an idealistic point of view. And at a global level, questions arise as to who is able to contribute more to solving the most pressing transnational issues such as climate change, migration, poverty, food and security. Here, however, cooperation would be a far better solution than competition. The Chinese would be in favour of it!

Xi is once again exercising more state control over the private sector under the banner of “shared prosperity”, with some analysts calling it “state capitalism”. Where does that lead?
“State capitalism” isn't accurate, “socialist market economy” is a better reflection of the reality. The Chinese have discovered that the “invisible hand” of the market is also a very good fit for the visible hand of the state.
The “shared prosperity” that you mentioned illustrates precisely the objective of a socialist system which now also increasingly has anti-monopoly features. The populace should share in prosperity. Even national champions which would otherwise be the pride of any country are ruthlessly cut back if they hamper competition of have disgraceful working conditions. Even democratic politicians in the West would like to be able to intervene that strongly in the economy. The Chinese market remains attractive, however, even for foreign investors, although more challenging. I do not see a return to the Soviet planned economy. This failed.

China faces major challenges. When it comes to foreign policy, it seems increasingly surrounded by a kind of anti-China alliance which American President Joe Biden is seeking to forge. How will the country develop in 2022? Will Xi Jinping further unite his country in view of the upcoming 20th party congress in the Autumn and act even more aggressively, perhaps by seeking to seize Taiwan while the world is watching the flashpoint in the Ukraine?
When it comes to foreign policy, Beijing will continue seeking opportunities to foster exchange, both economically and politically. Particularly regionally, in Southeast Asia, but also globally. The anti-Chinese alliance you mentioned is, in rational terms, predominantly an attempt by the Anglo-Saxon world, led by the USA and eagerly supported by Japan, to keep the acquis which was obtained by force in a past era. Taiwan is the focus here, the “one China” principle which is sacred to the Chinese. We will not witness an invasion unless provoked by the aforementioned alliance, in the form of a declaration of independence by Taiwan, for example.

Europe cannot watch the system rivalry between China and America forever. How does China see Europe? As a junior partner to the USA, as an independent actor or more as a loose alliance of individual states which essentially act independently?
I think China has a fairly realistic view of Europe: economically a superpower, but politically significantly weaker and barely capable of military action. French President Emmanuel Macron's idea of “strategic autonomy” is probably considered in Beijing to not yet be fully developed, though fundamentally China would like to have a united and more independent European partner which is willing to cooperate. However, this would require Germany, as an economic heavyweight in Europe, to warm up to Macron’s approach. This is clearly not the case.

Profound expert on the country
k. b. ·75-year-old Hans Boller lived in China from 1976 to 1983. He has a doctorate in social sciences and philosophy and has been involved with the country for over fifty years, for example as the first accredited Swiss journalist in the People's Republic, for the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, among others. He has been vice-president of the Swiss-Chinese Chamber of Commerce for many years. He is currently head of the Mediatank private foundation, which aims to promote dialogue between European and Chinese opinion leaders.


Hans Boller was the first Swiss journalist to be accredited in the People's Republic of China.



English translation:TEDOC

Photo: Christoph Ruckstuhl, NZZ
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Katrin Büchenbacher
foreign editor Neue Zürcher Zeitung
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