Asians worship white people
Last week we published the first part of the interview with Arnaud Boehmann, who lived in China for a year and gained a lot of impressions. He knows the relationship between Europe and China from both perspectives. A relationship that is very unequal. Because while the Chinese see Germany very positively, skepticism predominates in this country, almost even fear of the country in the middle, which is gaining more and more self-confidence. The EU, on the other hand, remains shaken by crises and the relationship with the deeply torn US is at an all-time low. What the Chinese criticize about the EU is often the weakness that they believe lies in the political system. From the Chinese point of view, politics here is too fixated on (re) elections and is therefore unable to pursue the best interests of the population in the long or even medium term. The second part of our interview is about China's self-perception, its relationship to Europe and Europeans, but also about how daily life is changing due to the all-encompassing surveillance.
Only a few Europeans have the experience of living in China. If you ask the average German about China, the answer mostly sounds skeptical, often concerned. Human rights violations, mass production and Chinese investment strength are often the first things people associate with China here. Many feel a little threatened, or at least uncomfortable, by the economic power of the country. Arnaud himself is studying Sinology, which is why it was quite normal for him to spend first one and then two semesters abroad. Like a waterfall, the words gush out of the Hamburger by choice when he talks about China. He has been involved in German-Chinese cultural exchange for a long time. Preferably on the subject of music, where he also likes to organize events and concerts. Arnaud also writes articles for Sinonerds.com, an information platform on China with an online magazine that is especially culturally very exciting. As a German-French he is used to navigating between cultures and knowing different perspectives. He described his impressions and experiences to our editor Grischa Beißner. For an hour they talked about China and Europe, what makes life there and also what Europeans and Chinese urgently need to learn from each other.
treffpunkteuropa.de: China is often accused of applying double standards when it comes to Chinese or foreign companies. But is that also the case on a personal level? Are you equal as a foreigner in China or do you have legal disadvantages?
Arnaud: From hearsay, from acquaintances and friends in China, I heard that legal security is difficult for foreigners. So that as a foreigner, if you get into a legal dispute with a Chinese, you often lose out because the system is designed for that. But that never happened to me myself. However, the previously mentioned high social dynamic also has a glass ceiling. There are always a number of elderly gentlemen among the wealthy and powerful, as here, too, who see themselves very strongly as Chinese and thus there are circles and classes into which foreigners are not allowed to enter. There are also certain limits to what you can do as a foreigner in China. As far as I know, you can't buy real estate. You can build houses but only lease the land underneath, and you cannot become a member of the communist party either.
treffpunkteuropa.de: Is this then a kind of “China first” that exists in the minds of the old people who are still tied to the “earlier” and their position of power or does that also exist in the minds of young people?
Arnaud: So you have to say: I also had contact a couple of times with these old men I was talking about. Between 40 and 65, very rich, bigwigs in companies, etc. Some of them were very nice, very open, very personable, very generous when it comes to inviting you to dinner - so very hospitable. But one impression that was recurring was that, in their own perception, the Chinese still suffer very much from the fact that they do not feel that they are being taken seriously. China is still processing the painful experiences of colonialism and is still exposed to its stereotypes, and that is a pattern that one finds again and again in Chinese identity politics. A Chinese who trades with foreign countries doesn't want to be ashamed of being Chinese. This also makes them very patriotic. Terms like “the yellow danger” or “the sick of East Asia”, which are still haunted by the media and discourses, are very present and will not be forgotten. The Chinese also have extremely poor access to the European market. Many Westerners are very skeptical of the Chinese. You never know "what do they want now, do they want to buy me up etc." I think this great skepticism is the cause of how the Chinese state and Chinese companies operate abroad. I don't think it's a “China first”. China doesn't want to be the ultimate hegemon. China wants to work at eye level with the great powers, wants to be a great power itself. You don't want China to be looked down on.
In China there is the Mao-coined term of the “hundred years of shame”, which was counted from the first opium war to the founding of the People's Republic of China. It is the trauma of having been semi-colonized, permanently inferior to the Western powers due to the lack of progress, and being at the mercy of the Western powers. China is still drawing on that today. These crimes by Western nations in China are still a major issue in the education system today. For young people, it depends on the background whether they share this thinking. There are still very strong class differences in China. The decisive factor is often: Has a young person studied or not, has he or she been abroad or not. With the latter, this thinking is often not so well represented, but it is of course also supported by the state that young Chinese * are proud of their country and also show it to the outside world.
treffpunkteuropa.de: China is also synonymous with extensive state censorship. Ever since John Oliver's contribution to China, we have known that even Winnie the Pooh is being censored because the head of state does not want to be compared with him. How did the censorship affect your life there?
Arnaud: One always speaks of the Great Firewall of China as a term for the state internet censorship and it is interesting because then sometimes things are possible online that one might not have thought. It is not that criticism is banned across the board, and I believe that one also has to get away from this image that the Chinese are not critical of their own government. Of course, if you criticize China as a foreigner, then many Chinese first sided with their country and only then do they criticize themselves.
As far as censorship is concerned, posts are often deleted and certain pages cannot be accessed. Interestingly, contrary to popular claims, Wikipedia is not completely blocked in China, only the Chinese version. Wikipedia can still be accessed in English, German, French. The services of Google, Facebook, YouTube are blocked, Amazon can only be used to a limited extent. However, the censorship can be bypassed with a VPN. In other words, by redirecting your own Internet access via a server abroad and then accessing the data via this server. Many Chinese and all foreign companies do that. Until recently, only providing a VPN was illegal in China, but since the beginning of this year, using a VPN has also been theoretically punishable. The Chinese government has threatened several times to shut down VPN networks completely - it is difficult to say whether it can do that at all, but it has not yet done so. Perhaps there are a few more things about larger censorship campaigns: Chinese censorship often does not work directly from the state but rather through anticipatory obedience on the part of the Internet provider. There are certain terms that are not mentioned or topics that must not be addressed, primarily civil rights and democracy issues, but also very explicit criticism of the government or pornography. Even if it is not directly specified “from above”, the Internet service providers often delete everything that they suspect should be prohibited. One thing I have in particular remembered and that concerned the LGBTQ community. There was a crackdown on such content for a while. And then these were very quickly deleted from blogs and social media, and even the rainbow flag emoji could no longer be used in private text messages for a short time. Often this censorship is not permanent, but occurs at short intervals, in which a topic is particularly sensitive and blocked. However, one must also say here that the censorship of the LGBTQ community was very contradictory in the Chinese network and you could see that. Then there were statements that were not particularly radical, that said that this was also part of human life or simply general expressions of solidarity. They weren't blocked and after this criticism, the censorship of LGBTQ content was quickly scaled back. So the government is also very sensitive to these reactions.
treffpunkteuropa.de: With the new Social Credits program, which relies on total surveillance, cameras and facial recognition software, China has made an Orwellian vision of horror a reality. Did you experience that in your everyday life there and did it affect you too?
Arnaud: Of course you can tell the cameras. Especially when you walk through a dark alley at night, you see the little red dot there. The cameras are omnipresent and at some point you look away and get used to them. But you always feel that something is being observed in the neck. It may of course be the case that we are a bit hardened in Europe because the data from us is read by the NSA or corporations. And that's why our sensitivity decreases a bit. But the surveillance is there. You can see it, you can feel it, but at least I've never come into contact with the negative consequences of it myself. It is, of course, a system designed to be self-disciplined. Because the camera is there, you don't go through the traffic light when it is red and because the camera is there you don't do this or that. What you notice is that many Chinese often see this as positive, as it now gives you a very high level of everyday security. There are probably more pickpockets in the marketplaces of Rome and Barcelona than in most areas of China, and government surveillance is in large part helping to reduce petty crime. Of course it's not gone. Bicycles and scooters are still being stolen. But in people's perception it is often the case that they actually feel more protected from it.
treffpunkteuropa.de: What particularly impressed you about Chinese culture?
Arnaud: Here in Europe, Confucius is always quoted as a calendar saying without a great deal of background knowledge and I personally can't do much with Confucianism and its model of society. I found the Daoist traditions extremely exciting. Sichuan is one of the cradles of Daoism and this philosophy is still upheld in China today. Most of the time, Buddhism is associated with China first in the West. But it's actually imported and Daoism is genuinely Chinese. There is also a lot of cultural work and entire research institutes. And these philosophies are still much deeper anchored in the structure of society than one sometimes thinks or wants to admit. There is always a lot going on in the Taoist temples. They are better attended than the average European church. In addition, there is the ancestor worship established in Confucianism, which is even older, and you can still see it in the hierarchy of everyday life. The parents are held extremely high. Not so long ago, a law was even passed in China that allows parents who do not have such a good relationship with their children to sue them if they do not visit often enough.
And also the idea that as an adult, working person, even if you earn well, you still live with your parents and that after a wedding the wife moves to the husband's family is still very strong in people's minds. Ancestor worship is still very big, as is humility, self-discipline, restraint and the suppression of emotional outbursts in everyday life. These are all things that go back to these traditional philosophies and are an important part of the culture.
What impressed me most about China is how ambitious and long-term they are about things. Because of its vast population and the way power is wielded, China has always been a land of mass campaigns and mass phenomena, starting with the Imperial Canals and the Great Wall. It has always been widely mobilized and planned for the long term. China plans long-term and thinks long-term. Of course, it is also easier in the one-party system. But it is THE big key to China's current economic success, for the new prosperity that not all, but large parts of the population, experience: long-term planning, coupled with a high willingness to take risks. For example with economic investments: you have a budget and then first do a risk analysis in Germany. And then another risk analysis. In the end you have spent ten percent of the budget on risk analysis and then decide not to do it. In China you might do one and then just do it. Of course, this also has the potential for failure, but it also leads to things being finished. Something like BER airport or Stuttgart 21 is simply not possible in China. Of course you also see projects fail, but you see many projects succeed. You are not afraid of major projects. Tackling things progressively, that is one of the characteristics of the new Chinese everyday culture and it works on both the small and the large scale and that is definitely another difference to us.
You can find parts 1 and 3 of the interview here.
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