How powerful is China politically and economically

interviewChina's secret campaign against the west

The Chinese Communist Party wants to stay in power by all means. To this end, it is pursuing a far-reaching program to get Western democracies in the mood for their course. Mareike Ohlberg and Clive Hamilton reveal in an unprecedented abundance of insights in their new book “The silent conquest” which weapons they use across the entire spectrum of politics, economy and society. How China is infiltrating Western democracies and rearranging the world ”. Ohlberg was a research assistant at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin until the end of April 2020 and then moved to the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in Berlin.

Capital: Ms. Ohlberg, the gigantic Silk Road initiative “Belt and Road” at the latest has shown the West how much China has globalized its economic and political influence. But you go one step further with the thesis that China wants a new world order. What should it look like?

MAREIKE OHLBERG: The Chinese government wants to reshape the world in such a way that it is safer for itself. The Chinese Communist Party currently feels surrounded and in a relatively weak position compared to the world power USA, which has alliances everywhere. Ultimately, it is about a gradual, long-term change in alliances in the global system. As a first step, current partners of the USA are to be induced to behave neutrally in a conflict between China and the USA and then in the next step and in the long term to side with China. At the moment, Beijing mostly relies on bilateral relations when dealing with other countries, in which China is usually the larger and stronger country. How realistic a complete reorganization of the world is, so that in the end we have a more sinocentric world and ideally all countries automatically submit to Chinese interests without any great demands is of course open. But the basic approach of at least putting other countries in a neutral position by increasing their dependence on China has not worked so badly so far.

The regime likes to present itself as a responsible, benevolent partner - and as a model of the modern world. Did this image suffer during the corona crisis?

In individual countries like Italy or Serbia, I think China had certain successes during the Corona crisis, for example with mask diplomacy. There, whether rightly or not, they are primarily angry with the EU and the West. In most EU countries, however, I actually see damage to the image of China. In this crisis, you messed with too many at the same time, and that in a situation where benevolence was already low. After all, the virus that is wreaking havoc on the economy and life everywhere came from China. But then you have to stand up and say that if you want our protective equipment, you have to thank us publicly or meet other conditions - that was not well received. To turn the emergency situation into a means of pressure did not go down well.

And otherwise does the party and government leadership do it differently?

Usually, the Chinese government tries to maintain good relations with most countries and only pick one or two countries to publicly mess with. This is what happened to Sweden after the Chinese government kidnapped a Swedish citizen from Thailand and tried to stand up for him. Or Norway, after Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize. You set an example in such a way that everyone will notice and then think twice about whether they want to mess with the Chinese government themselves.

And in the propaganda battle with the West, has China lost because of Covid-19? The pandemic made it clear how China is trying to turn mistakes into successes.

The crisis is not over yet and accordingly, of course, a lot can still happen. It can be said, however, that mask diplomacy has backfired in Europe as a whole. The Chinese government has also alienated many African countries after African citizens were mistreated in China and thrown from their homes. China has angered many governments at once and many are now talking about it publicly or exchanging ideas. That is certainly not helpful for the government in Beijing. Usually, such threats are made behind the scenes and rarely make it to the public.

But China will certainly try to present itself as the savior of the world economy when an upswing sets in. Will the seeds not come up after all?

No, from my point of view that won't happen. I don't see how. There is no capacity for that. Of course, people are trying to gloss over the recovery in China itself. But there is a problem in every nook and cranny. The country will have enough problems keeping itself afloat. Acting as a savior is not going to happen, and certainly not to the extent that we saw it during the last financial crisis.

China is not the winner of the pandemic

In your book, do you speak of economic statecraft as the sharpest instrument of political influence? They describe how China wins over decision-makers, attracts them with business contacts and investments. Will this continue to work?

Everyone wants to enter the Chinese market and that helps the Chinese government enormously, as it can threaten to punish countries economically. If this factor were to disappear, it would be a lot more difficult for the Communist Party to establish and use the networks as successfully as before. They wouldn't collapse overnight, but they would become less effective in the long run. But what also counts is maintaining the image. Even today it is already the case that many countries are economically much less dependent than often thought.

So has the CCP's corona pandemic thwarted the new world order?

Anyway, it makes it harder. There are too many open variables. The pandemic has also brought major losses to China. In any case, I don't see the country as a “winner”, as is sometimes claimed. But relations between Europe and the US have once again deteriorated significantly, and that is very good from the Chinese government's point of view. China didn't have to contribute much to this. So some things are “good” for the country, others have gone bad. At the moment it looks like the bad ones outweigh the rest. But how the propaganda battle about the pandemic will end in the end is still open - and how much weakened each side will emerge from it, too.