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To outsiders, it might seem as if a wave of populist politics were gushing through European capitals. Critics of EU problems can also point to Brexit, to the challenges of migration and terrorism, or to the still unresolved Greek debt crisis.
However, positive signs are growing. Many of the economies hardest hit by the 2008 financial crisis are now showing impressive growth. The result of the Dutch elections is a defeat of populism fair and square. According to the latest opinion polls, in none of the upcoming elections do populist parties have a realistic power option. Germany, at the heart of Europe, is enjoying robust growth of 1.9 per cent, historically low unemployment, record export volumes and a balanced budget for the fourth year in a row. For the elections in September, German populists are a dwindling force with no conceivable path to a share of governmental responsibility.
Across party lines, German support for European integration is actually growing. No one wants our country to become less liberal and less open to the world. The same is true for much of Europe. The vast majority of Europeans believe that a strong and cosmopolitan EU is how we can best harness the forces of globalisation for the common good.
Although Europe’s prospects to play a leading global role are much better than its reputation, there is a strong sense that we are witnessing tectonic shifts in the global order. The future course of US policy is still unclear in many respects. However, it would be a huge surprise to see it morph into a champion of multilateralism.
This is why President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) speech in Davos caused such a stir around the globe. It has been widely interpreted as a signal that a rising China is ready to enter the world stage towards goals that Germany also holds dear: safeguarding the institutions and principles which let us profit from globalisation and dealing with its unintended side effects. Among other things, these include an effective and well-funded UN, the implementation of the Paris climate accord, and, a rules-based free trade system with the World Trade Organisation at its core.
Now, Xi’s global audience is waiting for China to back up its talk with action. Foreign companies and private Chinese companies alike want greater market access, reciprocity in investment and a level playing field when competing against Chinese state-owned enterprises.
Harnessing globalisation requires more than trade-friendly policies. If China wants to lead in globalisation, which means stemming the tide of de-globalisation, it will have to open not just its ports and industrial parks but also its hearts and minds to the outside world.
In response to questions about China’s openness, all the country’s leaders sang from the same song sheet at the just-concluded National People’s Congress meeting: China’s door will continue to open wider. However, what is the evidence that this is really the case?
Let us take legislation in the past few years: we have seen a series of security-driven laws: national security, cybersecurity, foreign non-governmental organisations and anti-terrorism. Have there been laws about further opening, such as lightening the crushing load of permits for performances of foreign artists, or getting licences for foreign films or books? Has it become easier for foreign teachers, professors, young professionals looking for internships, to come to China? Have the media and the internet become more open? Is the “great firewall” a force for de-globalisation? Do foreign NGOs have an easier time working in China?
There is a growing worry that China’s focus on stability and security is undermining cooperation with the outside world. The new law on foreign NGOs, which entered into force at the beginning of the year, was supposed to facilitate the work of the vast majority of foreign NGOs. To date, only 0.5 per cent have completed the registration process. This means that practically all of them are currently preoccupied with registering with the police, not with their programmes, many of them in poverty alleviation. Stringent controls and permit requirements for unproblematic cultural performances have led to a reduction in foreign cultural performances and, in some places, the shutting down of decades-old fixtures of cultural life such as choirs. I wonder whether the security of China really requires submitting passport and other personal details of people to the police.
Even foreign children’s books for those aged two years and above now seem to be targets of censorship, apparently being driven out of the Chinese book market. What does China have to fear from the Gruffalo?
Leading the globe requires strength, and strength derives from real self-confidence which, in turn, is demonstrated in openness to others. Europe has to prove that it is retaining these qualities by keeping open its borders to people, ideas and goods and to withstand the lure of crackpots who preach that the source of strength and success lies in “ethnic homogeneity”. China’s impressive rise is made possible by globalisation.
Germany, as well as the EU, is ready to intensify cooperation with China in order to keep globalisation going. This requires the confidence to expose oneself to outside influences, to fully participate in the give-and-take, not just of capital and commodities but also of people and ideas. I hope China will seize the current window of opportunity to lead by opening its doors wider, through deeds and not just words.