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‘The West Has Become Very Conceited’
SPIEGEL: Madame Fu Ying, few countries are more interesting to the West right now than China — and few others alarm the West to the same degree, now that you have launched your first aircraft carrier. Why does China need to arm itself to this extent?
Fu Ying: The first aircraft carrier going to sea is a very exciting event in China. It’s something the Chinese people longed for. People think it’s a natural step in the growth of the Chinese military — although this so-called aircraft carrier was really just a framework of a second-hand aircraft carrier that we refitted and will only be used for scientific research and training purposes. It’s far, far from being a full-fledged aircraft carrier. In that sense, China is well behind other countries, let alone the United States which has had a mature and highly developed fleet of aircraft carriers for a long time now.
SPIEGEL: Are there not more pressing areas where that money could go rather than towards increasing the military budget?
Fu Ying: A number of areas are given greater priority than the development of our defenses. The greatest emphasis is on economic development, the well-being of the people and the sharing of the wealth. My daughter’s generation is the first that never experienced hunger in this country. That is unbelievable progress. Your concern about the Chinese military appears to me to be clouded by stereotypes about China based in the Cold War thinking of the division between us ideologically. You feel comfortable with aircraft carrier ownership by your allies, like the United States and France, but you are more concerned if China also has one.
SPIEGEL: How far will China go in terms of defending its interests? In the dispute over the sovereignty of the South China Sea, the tone can at times be quite sharp.
Fu Ying: We, too, are wondering why there is such strong rhetoric, since the countries involved are already engaged in dialogues on the basis of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002. But this is a dispute of words, and what matters is that the shipping traffic in the South China Sea remains peaceful and there is no war or conflict going on.
SPIEGEL: The Americans clearly have doubts about your intentions. Pakistan is believed to have provided China with access to the wreckage of the high-tech US helicopter that crashed during the operation against Osama bin Laden. Are you in a position to confirm whether this is true?
Fu Ying: Both China and Pakistan have denied this rumor. I think the most important thing is the question of whether China and the US are enemies. Are we going to be in a war? Are we preparing for a war against each other? We certainly don’t see it that way. It is not very friendly that the US maintains a weapons embargo against China. We have no intention to threaten the US, and we don’t see the US as a threat to us. The West tends to place China in the framework of the Cold War. This puzzles China a lot.
SPIEGEL: Many Germans, while respecting China’s development, see your country more as a rival than a partner. Is that something that you can understand?
Fu Ying: I’m grateful you raised that point because it is something that has been on my mind for a long time. If you fundamentally accept that China’s growth has lifted countless people in the country out of poverty, then you also have to agree that China has done things right. One must also accept that there can be a different political system. The countries in the West think they have the only system that works and they have narrowed down “democracy” to a multi-party election system, which works well for some countries, most of the time, but as we are now seeing with the latest financial crisis, they sometimes experience difficulties too. The West has become very conceited. At the end of the day, democracy alone cannot put food on the table. That’s the reality.
SPIEGEL: China’s decision-making process appears to be shielded with black box secrecy, and even long-time observers are puzzled over how political decisions are taken. Does it really come as a surprise to you that many are wary of China’s intentions?
Fu Ying: China’s political system is a product of China’s history. It is based on the country’s own culture and is subject to a constant reform process, which includes the building up of democratic decision-making processes in China. In order to make the right decisions, you have to listen to the people and their criticism. No government can survive if it loses touch with the people and reality. And we have a very critical view of ourselves.
SPIEGEL: The West perceives a lack of transparency and rule of law in the Chinese model.
Fu Ying: I think at the moment it is the Western governments that are having problems. We are observing what is going on in the West. We try to understand why so many governments made so many mistakes. Why do political parties make commitments they cannot fulfill? Why do they spend so much more than they have? Has the West been stagnating since the end of the Cold War? Or has it just become conceited?
SPIEGEL: Democracies are very complicated, and compared to tightly ruled systems, they are at a disadvantage. Do you feel superior?
Fu Ying: Superiority is the not the word we use. The Chinese are very modest. We respect your success and we learn from you. You are in the post-industrialized era. Many of the problems you encounter might occur in China later. So we want to see how you address those problems, and if we can learn from you.
SPIEGEL: The case of recently arrested artist Ai Weiwei, who is well-connected in Berlin, was seen in Germany as a provocation. Was it intentional that he was arrested shortly after German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle attended the opening of an exhibition in Beijing with Chinese officials?
Fu Ying: That’s why I say you are conceited. You really take yourself very seriously. Why would a country like China decide on domestic matters and try to make them coincide with a visit by a foreign minister from a European country? I don’t see the linkage. The case you are discussing is a legal matter. I am not really interested in this case.
SPIEGEL: If it is a legal case, then why wasn’t Ai Weiwei publicly charged? Instead he disappeared for 81 days. The allegations of tax evasion don’t appear to be very convincing.
Fu Ying: If you have such great interest in this case and believe there has been a breach of law or rules in his case, you may very well raise it. We can pass it on to the authorities. But how many more Chinese artists, writers, singers and movie stars do Germans know? Your view of China is very narrow and negative, and that’s why we don’t feel comfortable discussing human rights with you. Our understanding of human rights is based on the UN Charter, which guarantees political rights, the right to life and the right to development. But in your view, human rights seem to concern only some individuals who are subverting the state or are breaching laws.
SPIEGEL: Some of these people symbolically represent hundreds of others.
Fu Ying: But please try to put things into perspective. We have 1.3 billion people living in China. Since day one of our relationship with the West, human rights have been a subject for discussion. Many issues were discussed and solved and the content keeps changing. But today the Western understanding of human rights is used as an instrument against China, regardless of the fact that China has improved very much in this area, and no matter how intensively we are working on the issue.
SPIEGEL: Can you say anything more concrete about the Ai Weiwei case?
Fu Ying: He is being investigated and he has been released after paying bail. I don’t have any further comment on him.
SPIEGEL: As one dictator after another was chased out in the Arab world this year, critical journalists, attorneys and human rights activists in China have been experiencing a wave of repression, with some even speaking of a “Chinese Winter”. Does China fear a handful of activists?
Fu Ying: What was happening in the Middle East is an event that attracted attention all over the world. We, too, are trying to understand what led to these revolutions. As for China, I don’t see any direct linkage. Again, it’s the habit of some Western analysts to connect everything bad with China. If you think your society is strong enough to avoid infection by the Arab revolution, what makes you think that the Chinese society is so weak that it has to be infected? Eighty-seven percent of Chinese surveyed in a poll by the Pew Research Center in 2010 said the government is on the right track. In the US, however, recent polls show that a lot of people think the country is not on the right path.
SPIEGEL: China always shows pretty strong reactions when Western leaders meet with the Dalai Lama. You recommend that other countries should solve their disputes through dialogue. Why hasn’t China succeeded in reaching an agreement with the Tibetan spiritual leader?
Fu Ying: Our difficulty with the Dalai Lama is his political views and demands for Tibet independence. If you read his website, you will see what he wants. In essence, he wants an independent Tibet.
SPIEGEL: He has explicitly rejected that, saying he doesn’t want separation, but instead greater autonomy.
Fu Ying: Tibet is part of China. But, of course, the door to dialogue is always open. Dialogue is always welcome. I am glad more and more people are visiting Tibet, and more and more people understand life in Tibet better now.
SPIEGEL: Unfortunately, journalists are not allowed to access Tibet.
Fu: There is a bit of concern about the intentions and motives of Western journalists. Sometimes it’s as if some of them come to a wedding and only want to inspect the contents of a dark corner. They want to show the world there is no smiling bride, there is no groom and no happy friends — just darkness. They write about it extensively. They may be facts, but they are very selective facts.
SPIEGEL: The Dalai Lama has officially retired from his offices. Is this not a good point in time to seek a peaceful solution?
Fu Ying: The fact that he is withdrawing from his political offices shows that he does regard himself as the king and god in one and is thus the owner of Tibet. But those days are over. Tibet is finally undergoing development, and the region truly is doing better and better. So we will see whether the Dalai Lama can relinquish himself of his political demands.
SPIEGEL: It’s not only Tibet which is developing at a fast pace. Lately, the West has been up to its neck in debts, but China has experienced fantastic growth. Has communism ultimately defeated capitalism?
Fu Ying: We are not the Soviet Union. During the entire Cold War, the West and the Soviet Union were at each other’s throats. You each wanted to see the other side’s demise; that was your strategic objective. But China was not part of your fight and we have always supported Germany’s reunification.
SPIEGEL: As of the end of June, China held US bonds with a total value of $1.165 trillion and European bonds worth $700 billion. Economically, China is already a superpower today. What does that mean for the political balance of power?
Fu Ying: Many say that power is shifting from the West to the East, but we believe that it is a process of diffusion. It used to be within the Western world, but now it is also diffusing to a wider world. There is a need to reform the current world structure, which was built after World War II to the benefit of around 1 billion people of the developed world. China is only one of the newly emerging countries. Brazil is growing. India is growing, as are parts of Africa. In the future, 3 to 4 billion people will be coming into this process of wider industrialization. But that reform needs to be an incremental process that is achieved not through war and not through conflict, but through dialogue.
SPIEGEL: Will the West wind up on the losing side?
Fu Ying: You are currently experiencing difficulties, but you have gone through so many difficulties in the past — Europe and the US — and you always bounce back. We are also interdependent, and your loss is not necessarily our gain. We’re in one boat. And we indeed worry when Western economies are experiencing difficulties. That’s why it is good that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are taking the lead. Very recently, my colleagues and I discussed the future of the European Union. The prevalent view was that if you work together to address the current difficulties, then the EU will go forward to become more integrated. If you do not, the euro zone might collapse.
SPIEGEL: What would it mean for China if the financial crisis in the West extends to other regions?
Fu Ying: Everyone would suffer.
SPIEGEL: Many observers believe that the legitimacy of the Chinese government hinges on its economic success. In the event of an economic crisis, would you need to be worried about your country’s stability?
Fu Ying: Do Western governments change their multi-party system during an economic crisis? I don’t think so. Why should we be worried? Having said that, our reform is an ongoing process and we will continue to move forward.
SPIEGEL: For a long time, the West believed that the developments in China were a win-win situation for everyone involved. Now, however, the impression is solidifying — even within international institutions like the World Trade Organization — that the Chinese want to shift the balance of the global economy to their advantage. The long-term policy of keeping the Renminbi artificially undervalued is just one example of this that is often cited.
Fu Ying: China has no intention to rule the world. But if you continue to see yourself as the center of the world, if you see yourself as the monopoly of all truths, all the right beliefs and all the right values, then you will always find it uncomfortable when you realize that the world is diversified. There are different values and cultures. And if you believe you have won the Cold War, then the Cold War is finished, over, done. We are living in a new world. Get down off your high horse of being on top of the world. Come down to be equals and join us on a level playing field instead of creating a new rival in the style of the Cold War.
SPIEGEL: You maintain very close relations with leaders like Kim Jong Il in North Korea, whose people are starving because he refuses to open up his country, or North Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who is being sought for crimes against humanity. What is your philosophy regarding this?
Fu Ying: Our own sufferings in history have taught us that we should never try to impose on other countries or support others to impose. We have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council; we have hundreds of Chinese UN peacekeepers in Darfur, Sudan. If every time you don’t like the leader of a country and then move in and intervene, that would lead to chaos. Think of your own experience in intervention, which is not always successful.
SPIEGEL: You’re referring to the military deployment in your neighbor country, Afghanistan.
Fu Ying: You need to reflect on your own experience.
SPIEGEL: China weakens institutions like the United Nations, in particular, because you frequently water down joint resolutions against Iran, North Korea or Syria, whose President Bashar Assad allows the army to fire against his own people, to the point of ineffectiveness. Where are the limits to China’s tolerance of human rights violations?
Fu Ying: The case of Iran is part of the whole security situation. That’s why we have the five-plus-one discussions on Iran. In the case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, we have the six-party talks. I believe patient diplomacy will pay off in the end.
SPIEGEL: With regard to Iran, this patience could result in us losing a race against time in the end.
Fu Ying: We don’t have a better solution.
SPIEGEL: Given differences of opinion like that, how are powers like China and the USA supposed to cooperate in dealing with global challenges like cyber security, financial stability, food security and nuclear proliferation?
Fu Ying: We need to overcome the wall of distrust. If we only allow ourselves to be led by our own views, our own feeling, our own emotions, even our own values, then we will only create more problems. Be it peacekeeping missions or the protection of shipping channels off the coast of Somalia or climate change, I think you will find China to be an enthusiastic participant in world affairs.
SPIEGEL: How does it feel to be viewed as a new economic superpower?
Fu Ying: It is flattering.
SPIEGEL: Does it make you nervous, as well?
Fu Ying: Not at all. We don’t view ourselves as a superpower. You are not going to see a USA or a Soviet Union in China. You are going to see a culturally nourished country with a big population, being more content, being happy, being purposeful — and it will be a friend to the world. There is no reason to worry about China.
SPIEGEL: Madame Fu Ying, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Susanne Koelbl in Beijing.