Interview: One year as a European in China, part III

, by Grischa Alexander Beißner, Translated by Steffi Buchler

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Interview: One year as a European in China, part III
Picture used by Treffpunkt Europa with the interviewee’s permission.

Arnaud Boehmann spent one year living in China. For many Europeans, the Middle Kingdom that exists beyond dramatic reports and prejudice is still hard to grasp. What does daily life look like over there? What moves Chinese people? Arnaud shared his experience about living in China as a European in an interview with our German sister edition Treffpunkt Europa, and the interview is published in three parts. In the last part, Arnaud and Grischa talked about visibility in smog, German faintheartedness, and what Chinese and Europeans can learn from each other.

Over the past days, Arnaud has shared some of his impressions of China with us. He offered a particular way of looking at the country which is difficult to assess as a European. In the third and final part of our interview with Arnaud Boehmann, we discuss everyday things like life with smog, but also how the difficult relationship between Europe and China could be changed – because the dynamics in Europe largely differ from those in China.

One can rightfully criticise the Middle Kingdom for insufficient respect of human rights or its Orwellian surveillance methods, which are widely discussed over here. But that is just one side of a country which is very diverse otherwise. While China’s people and society are boosted by a courageous, partly even reckless will to set off to new shores, Europe and specifically Germany seem to recoil from any kind of risk. It’s getting more and more difficult to find courageous new ideas. Instead, you have an almost self-destructive addiction to the old and the familiar. Everything should stay as it is. Germany is no longer ‘first world’ when it comes to digitalisation, but ranks far behind China. Despite all the legitimate criticism of China, there are certainly things that China does better and more intelligently than Europe. What do you think Europe should do more like China?

Arnaud: Especially doing things with a long-term view and the social dynamics of China are something we should learn urgently. Also that rich people shouldn’t cut themselves off as much.

Of course, long-term planning and the courage to accept a failure are associated with certain financial risks, but success rates prove that China is doing it right. While Germany discontinued the Transrapid project following the tragic accident in 2006, China continued and finished building it. China has a railway network with only minor delays, despite covering an enormous area. At least that’s how I experienced it. Germany and Europe could learn a lot from that.

Many of these large-scale projects have been successful, and you can see it in China’s international politics: major projects are being tackled, people are daring, don’t hesitate but also don’t rush things. Everything is planned very carefully, many people are being employed in think tanks and as planning staff so that those projects can run smoothly. Of course every once in a while, one of them will go wrong, but that’s something they can manage. That’s something Europe should learn from, since many of our problems originate from a) not planning long-term and b) being afraid to tackle big projects out of fear of failure. No matter if it’s about infrastructure or European integration and solidarity. Is there also something that China should do more like Europe? For instance, what did you miss the most during your time over there?

Arnaud: Cheap coffee. I spent a lot of money on coffee that was way overpriced [laughs]. No, well, a lot of what China does right now comes at a cost – with special regard to the environment. And whereas the US has fatally pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, China is trying to fill this gap. I think by now, China is the biggest solar energy producer in the world and is building giant facilities in order to become more and more ecologically sustainable.

The motivation is there and there are strategies and approaches in place to clean the air, since Chinese cities are known for their extremely high air pollution levels. But I think that many large-scale projects are still done without much respect towards the environment, and the Chinese have to be careful not to put their own livelihood in danger in the long run by building dams impounding big rivers or by their new aquatic policy and development systems, essentially the way in which they expand big cities.

There are also some big gaps in their health care system. Of course it’s an extreme logistic achievement to provide for such a huge nation. That’s obviously difficult, but there’s definitely room for improvement. And I believe that a bit of relaxation would do China good overall. The people are extremely stressed in their everyday life. It’s a total meritocracy, and especially the younger generation suffers from that. The level of exam stress experienced by the Chinese on a daily basis is completely unimaginable for us, and you can definitely see it. A considerable number of young people enter university with burn-out after the Gao Kao, the final secondary school examinations. That can’t be good for society as a whole, and I believe that all social classes could benefit from taking a step back and saving their personal resources. Not to slow down China’s development, but to make people enjoy their ever-improving life. How should one imagine the smog in the cities? Is the air hard to breathe? Or does it just stink?

Arnaud: There’s this air quality index which measures the amount of particles per cubic metre of air. I remember once having a smog alert in Stuttgart. In Germany, the alarm is set off if the level rises above 40, and the norm is 20-30 or under. A few years ago, there was the so-called “airpocalypse” in Beijing, when it climbed up to 800.

In my experience, you don’t really notice it if it’s under 100 and you get used to it really fast. People who are more sensitive tend to get headaches. And you shouldn’t exercise in that case. If you go running or climb some stairs, you’ll notice that you’re short of breath much faster. I always put on a breathing mask when the levels went above 200. That happened more often during winter. During Christmas, we reached 300 in Chengdu.

The smog is not permanent: when it rains, it gets better. But I experienced about twenty to thirty of those bad scenarios during my stay. Many people, basically everyone who can afford it, have an air cleaner in their room, considering that you have the same air inside as outside. Without an air cleaner, it’s very tough. Once a certain level is reached, you can physically see it. Many residential buildings over there have 40 floors, and if you look out of the window and can no longer see the tower next to yours, you can tell that the air is bad today.

Generally speaking, however, water is a much bigger issue. You can’t drink tap water in China. You can, of course, boil it with moderate success, but many people buy their water in canisters at the supermarket. If you see people running around with imported Italian or French water, that’s a luxury. You have to buy clean water, and that’s quite a difference. What can Europeans learn from the Chinese?

Arnaud: Over here, people talk a lot about “first world problems”, meaning that we often complain about things that aren’t worth complaining about. Many young Chinese, especially those coming from the countryside, have witnessed poor conditions in their childhood.

The debate on whether China is a developing country, a developed country or an emerging country is still ongoing. If you visit the Chinese countryside, you immediately see where there is backlog. But since China now has a well-advancing urbanisation rate, many people originally from the countryside now live in cities. Additionally, there are still several millions of migrant workers who are technically homeless and travel across the country, from site to site, from factory to factory.

I think that the Chinese are a bit more modest than we are: they have less demands and get by with less. China has many typical dormitories, even at major universities. And it’s completely normal for students from wealthier families to stay in those dormitories. Four, six or eight students live in one dorm with high sleeper beds. Under that, they have a desk and half a wardrobe. And everything they have is in it. They can improvise very well, since they have everything ready: workout clothes, fancy evening dresses, jeans and t-shirts. And I believe that getting on with less and being more flexible is something we should learn from the young Chinese. Of course there’s also an enormous consumption market in China, but when it comes to realising that in case of doubt you can also get by with less, the Chinese are more efficient. Do you have any advice for Europe on what the EU should do differently when dealing with China?

Arnaud: I think it’s a big mistake to treat China as the new USSR. There is no second Cold War and China is not the evil red bloc. You can debate on whether China should become our newest partner, our best ally or our closest friend. However, it’s certain that – despite all justified criticism – China has no reason to listen to foreign critique voiced in a lecturing or borderline colonial tone, as in “Do it like us, then it’ll get better.” I guess that’s something we know from our own experience: it’s just much easier to listen to respectful and friendly advice.

I think that a positive, ideally amicable relationship between Europe and China will be good for the future. China is a country with an enormous potential. Especially in the wake of American politics under Trump and even after, we should say goodbye to the notion of a US-Europe bloc that perceives China as its archenemy. That doesn’t help anybody and we have to admit that we now live in a globalised world where we cannot afford this, even if we wanted to. Those Americans who constantly rail against China are also dependent. After all, China has bought an enormous amount of American debt. In principle, China has [economically] beaten the US with its “socialism with Chinese characteristics” approach.

Much like the US economically played off the USSR until the end and ‘won’ the Cold War by doing so, the Chinese have done their part. With the help of a transfer system with state control of banks, a large investment programme – the complete opposite of our austerity policy – and a nonetheless capitalist market economy, they have managed to establish themselves as a global economic power too big to fail. And I believe that we should approach China with respect, ideally amicably, but in any case in a constructive way; that we should not cut ourselves off out of fear of foreign intrusion.

At the same time, being well aware of private investors and enterprises from China buying land and companies in Europe, we must be careful that this doesn’t become too one-sided. We could think about restrictions or putting more pressure on China to reciprocally open its own market to the West. If we make sure that this relationship becomes constructive and collaborative instead of one-sided, it could be to the great advantage of both sides.

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