Clues into the eventual collapse of Western civilization, overheard from the MPS Censorship Office in Beijing (translated from Mandarin).
August 23, 2021
INTERIOR OFFICE KITCHEN — JASMINE TEA STATION
CENSOR AGENT #1: If the Capitol riots in DC showed us anything, it’s that only Liberation Army tanks can stop a protest.
CENSOR AGENT #2: Gimme a break. Those overfed Americans had no strategy whatsoever. And they had full access to Facebook!
CENSOR AGENT #3: Okay, but we need to talk about how shit like retail stock trading is upending everything we’re doing here.
CENSOR AGENT #2: Dank memes? Honestly the world would be better off without them. Reddit will eventually eat itself.
CENSOR AGENT #3: You do realize there are more ‘final’ stages of late-capitalism, right?
CENSOR AGENT #1: Who left this Winnie The Pooh mug on my desk? You know we can all get fired for this. I don’t want to go back to Guangzhou.
EXTERIOR GROUNDS — OFFICE PARKING LOT
CENSOR AGENT #3: Fuck! France and England just rejected all our Huawei tech. My husband spent three years of his life embedding backdoor digital crowbars in those fucking phones. And now you’re telling me they’re banning Huawei? Good luck assholes.
CENSOR AGENT #2: You think that’s tough? I’ve been here since the 90s. Try Photoshopping out the tanks at Tiananmen before there was Photoshop.
CENSOR AGENT #1: Listen everyone, stop panicking. In the end, it really doesn’t matter — the legacy of this job is that Chinese civilians still think Google is a stone fruit from the Philippines. Be proud of the work we’ve done here.
INTERIOR OFFICE — PAPER SHREDDER ROOM
CENSOR AGENT #1: Did the NBA pay their bill to the CCP this month?
CENSOR AGENT #3: Relax! They’re paid up for the next twelve years. But there’s a slim chance the Houston Rockets might still want to have next year’s training camp in Hong Kong. We’ll monitor that situation.
CENSOR AGENT #2: Speaking of monitoring, have you seen the contents of James Harden’s iPhone? Salacious.
INTERIOR 7-ELEVEN — TONGZHAO DISTRICT BEIJING
CENSOR AGENT #1: Oh, forgot to tell you, Mike Pompeo called yesterday. He said thanks for all the photo ops, backdoor exits, and secret handshakes during those four years. And also for not kidnapping him.
CENSOR AGENT #2: It’s like when Richard Gere made sure there was always a photographer around whenever he hung out with the Dalai Lama. And they accuse us of propaganda!
Press freedom and democratic values have collapsed in Hong Kong, but memories of the city that shaped my childhood remain.
Daphne K. Lee May 25 2021
From the faint memory of my kindergarten years in Hong Kong, I remember having an unexpected day off when I watched a television rerun of an elaborate ceremony. National flags and anthems were exchanged. That bold, festive shade of red, which I now understand as Communist Red, was like an incessant fever that burned through the pixelated TV screen into my five-year-old brain. It was July 1, 1997.
A little over two decades later, media outlets announced the death of Hong Kong. On June 30, 2020, Chinese authorities imposed a sweeping national security law to quash dissent and the city’s pro-democracy movement.
The vague legal language, a textbook example of an authoritarian law, granted Beijing extraterritorial power to prosecute any human being on this planet. According to the law, people residing both inside and outside of Hong Kong could face life imprisonment if they were convicted with crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. By virtue of writing this essay alone, I may be committing a crime.
Under the newly enacted law, dozens of activists and journalists have been charged for crimes without merits. Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, a walking symbol of press freedom in Hong Kong, was sentenced to 14 months in prison for unauthorized assembly at pro-democracy protests along with other veteran activists. Last September, the Hong Kong Police Force created a new licensing system for media accreditation, one that would redefine who qualifies as a journalist favorable to authorities. Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to enact a fake news law, which could be used to stifle dissent by classifying pro-democracy content as disinformation.
“During the protests [in 2019], the barrier for reporters was on the streets, in the form of raw police brutality,” said Brenda, a former Apple Daily reporter who requested to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals. “But media censorship has since morphed into an invisible ‘red line’ and we don’t know how far it goes.”
In the summer of 2019, millions of protesters marched against the government’s controversial extradition bill, a law that would have allowed transferring criminal suspects to mainland China, where fair trials may be absent in an opaque judicial system.
Once a rising star, Hong Kong was celebrated for its economic prosperity and cultural diversity, but it is now battered by rage, resentment, and terror. Throughout much of 2019, I watched my city’s deterioration as I reported from nearby Taiwan, a democratic ally and an equally concerning target of annexation for China. I made four or five trips to the city — only a two-hour flight away — not as much as to report stories on the ground, but to catch the last breath of my birthplace that’s growing more unfamiliar by the day.
Each trip I left feeling more melancholic than the last. The streets that were once filled with selfie-obsessed tourists became wide open for anyone to roam. Some of my friends who were hopeful about the movement eventually grew jaded, looking for ways to leave. Sources that I was familiar with went dark on social media for fear of repercussions.
Staring at the media footage reeking of blood and smoke, and the many unrecognizable blacked-out profile photos on Facebook, I wondered how we ended up here. It must have been that one holiday I was naively excited about, the day that we now wish to erase from our calendar. The handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997 seemed to be a reference point for my generation to remember the before and after. That’s not to praise British colonialism, but the transfer of sovereignty was a turning point for the years of uncertainty to come.
As I watched the handover ceremony, I rushed to the kitchen and asked my mom what the special occasion was. “It’s ‘the handover’ of Hong Kong,” she said, and the literal translation of “the handover” in Chinese is “returning home.” In my brilliant toddler mind, returning home meant a joyous day off from school.
“So when will we be handed over again?” I asked, looking up at my mom in angst-filled anticipation. “The handover will only happen once,” she said.
But July 1 became a recurring holiday each year. For China, it was a day to flaunt its reclamation of Hong Kong, its continual success of the harmonious “One country, two systems” policy. For many Hong Kongers, it was an annual occasion to march for autonomy, to voice their concerns over a decline in quality of life, to lobby for — without success — basic civic rights like universal suffrage and fair elections.
As for myself, at best a bystander who watches the fire from afar, I can’t help but feel that I’ve escaped through sheer luck. Several years after 1997, my family left Hong Kong behind to different corners of the world, fleeing from the inevitable loss of freedom and stability. Those conscious decisions made by my parents, which I was too young to grasp at the time, granted me the luxury today to pen these words without fear of arrest and persecution.
Local journalists and columnists in Hong Kong are modifying their reporting methods such as writing under pseudonyms to avoid doxing. International news organizations like The New York Times are slowly relocating their staff to Taiwan and South Korea. I asked Brenda, now a freelance journalist without institutional support, if she’s worried about her future at all. She admitted to feeling anxious about the national security law’s sweeping language, but not really about her personal safety. “I’m more worried about exposing my sources,” she said, adding that she has already destroyed sensitive recordings and notes.
“Some journalists would say that if something bad happened to them, they’d be unable to keep reporting, so it’s best to protect themselves first,” Brenda said. “I still don’t know if there’s a correct answer to that.”
The stakes are rising especially for those who have only one passport and cannot afford a backup plan. As of now, an alternative future seems to be nothing but a delusion. Many Hong Kongers are reimagining their lives elsewhere, in the United Kingdom, Australia, or Canada, seeking advice on the fastest departure route.
I myself had, for years, consciously avoided media coverage of how Hong Kong was plagued by increasing inequalities and pessimism. Those struggles seemed distant or obstructive to my rather peaceful life abroad. There’s little nobility in talking about a city that I had deserted, only guilt. There’s no power in my writing, only the unrealistic desire for my city to be rid of its chains.
Daphne K. Lee (@daphnekylee) is a freelance journalist covering food and culture. She has written for several publications, including CBS News, VICE, and Nikkei Asia.
What Happens When A Meme Army Decides To Fight The Government?
The Milk Tea Alliance signals a new era in activism. But with authoritarian governments quickly rising to this emerging conflict, how will the online resistance maintain its influence?
Brian Chee-Shing Hioe May 25 2021
Fighting authoritarianism on the internet with memes. That’s one way of looking at the Milk Tea Alliance, but it could be that the online phenomenon reflects the future of protest. The unlikely grouping of the Milk Tea Alliance, which recently marked its first anniversary, consists of netizens from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and now Myanmar. It represents a transnational movement, whose goals are broadly pro-democracy and opposed to regional authoritarianism.
In line with much of the humor that has characterized the online exchanges between participants, the Milk Tea Alliance originates from a decidedly unserious incident. Thai actor Vachirawit “Bright” Chivaaree, best known for acting in Thai TV “boy’s love” drama 2gether, came under scrutiny from nationalistic Chinese internet users in April 2020 after they discovered a tweet in which he referred to Hong Kong as an independent country. Though Chivaaree later apologized, Chinese netizens were further enraged after an Instagram post from Chivaaree’s girlfriend Weeraya “New” Sukaram, which they interpreted as suggesting that Taiwan was also a sovereign state.
Angry Chinese trolls focused much of their attacks on mocking the Thai king and prime minister. Thai netizens, however, responded by trolling the Chinese online nationalists with self-deprecating humor and memes mocking Chinese patriotism. This included expressions of support for Taiwan and Thailand. Taiwanese and Thai users subsequently joined in on the fun, resulting in the birth of the Milk Tea Alliance, named after the distinctive milk tea beverage found in the founding countries.
The Alliance is distinctly a consequence of a globalized, post-internet world. This can be gleaned from the naming, in that residents of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand were closely familiar with each region’s milk tea beverages, either from traveling, or from widely available exports due to trade.
This connection is further reflected in the shared vernacular between Alliance members. Many of the memes exchanged are derived from familiar online formats, global pop culture, Western Hollywood films, and Japanese anime. After all, the inciting incident involving “Bright” Chivaaree transpired because Chinese netizens were already familiar with a Thai television drama.
The Milk Tea Alliance has progressed far beyond this initial incident, which has largely been forgotten, though it set the tone for much of what came later, in terms of troll culture, and the use of memes as a common language between members and its transnational apparatus. In the subsequent months, the Milk Tea Alliance framing has proved quite adaptable and expansive.
We have seen more than 11 million Tweets featuring the #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag over the past year. Conversations peaked when it first appeared in April 2020, and again in February 2021 when the coup took place in Myanmar🇲🇲: pic.twitter.com/yb0RmlTTEP
There has been a long and storied history of solidarity between Taiwan and Hong Kong, as they both share the same threat to their democratic freedoms from China. Moreover, they both have linguistic and cultural similarities. With youth-led protests having broken out in both locations over the past decade, the current affinity between them was likely shaped by Taiwanese and Hong Konger millennials consuming a great deal of each other’s cultural exports around the turn of the century. This created a shared understanding between the two, with both sides proving highly knowledgeable about the other.
However, the inclusion of Thailand brings a new element to the Milk Tea Alliance, as few would have seen solidarity between Taiwan and Hong Kong as unique. But the focus has primarily been on Hong Kong, with images of heated protests and street clashes against police being circulated regionally for months by April 2020. The protests originally erupted during the summer of 2019 as a reaction to a proposed bill that would have allowed Hong Kongers to be extradited to China, fueling fear of political persecution.
Shortly after the emergence of the Milk Tea Alliance phenomenon, Thailand saw its own set of youth-led activism. The protests in Thailand are extraordinary in their directives against the Thai monarchy, historically taboo to criticize, with those that denounce the monarchy targeted with lèse-majesté laws. This has changed with the newer protests, which were directed against the monarchy and the military junta that backs it. After a military coup that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, Myanmar became the latest member of the Milk Tea Alliance. It seemed like an inevitability for Myanmar to be included, as brutal protests have left over eight hundred dead.
It is probable that if pro-democracy protests occur in other Asian countries, then they, too, will be welcomed into the Alliance. Indeed, its earliest framing raised questions as to whether its ambition was more broadly pro-democracy or specifically anti-China. Some included India due to its border conflicts between the two countries.
With the outbreak of protests in Myanmar, there has been some backlash against China, owing to the belief that China backs the military junta there, which has led to the torching of Chinese-owned factories by protesters. Such views have sometimes verged on the conspiratorial, seeing as China has relations with Myanmar’s military government and is perceived as funding it, but is likely not the power behind the junta either. Ultimately, it may be that the perception of China backing other authoritarian governments in the region is a simple intimation that these governments do not have the people’s best interests in mind.
The permanent inclusion of Myanmar seems to confirm that the movement’s final premise is founded on democracy. Milk tea forever, then?
The Chivaaree meme is not the first online episode mocking Chinese nationalism that went viral. During a livestream of H1Z1, a popular online battle royale game, American streamer ‘Angrypug’ shouted “Taiwan No. 1” at Chinese gamers to “make them lose their shit”, much to the delight of the Taiwanese.
“Taiwan No. 1” is an early example of a meme that cut across borders to mock Chinese nationalists. As a whole, American gamers probably do not have any geopolitical stake in tensions between Taiwan and China. However, the virality of the event had large ripple effects in Taiwan, as the phrase subsequently became ubiquitous in Taiwan, appearing on shop stalls, in advertisements, and referenced by politicians and celebrities. Online sensations in one part of the world can reverberate elsewhere and, in this sense, this incident can be seen as a predecessor to the later, much more remarkable phenomenon of the Milk Tea Alliance – which had similarly humorous origins, but became a much more politically significant movement.
Broadly, though, the meme form is becoming increasingly influential and credible, with everything from politicized Pepe the Frog memes to the recent non-fungible token (NFT) craze shaping new asset markets. What begins as a meme can later have enormous political and social consequences.
Does the Milk Tea Alliance, in fact, reflect the future of protest? In our current climate, protests across the world demonstrate an increasing awareness of each other. When movements reach out to each other, it is uniquely through the internet.
At the same time, it may be worth raising some questions about its staying power. Transnational movements are uncommon. But even then, the Alliance also differs as it is more typical to see campaigns that shape themselves toward single-issue causes, such as anti-nuclear activists from Taiwan, China, and Japan working together, or woman’s rights groups from various Asian countries coalescing.
Transnational efforts are also often unable to directly assist each other, besides offering encouragement and support, as movements often do not materially contribute to each other when borders are in place. This is all the more so for the Milk Tea Alliance, which is primarily online; exchanges between members only occur within internet groups or through social media.
Solidarity rallies have taken place in member nations, oftentimes organized by the local diaspora of the protest location. But the commitment between members does not seem to wield enough strength for substantive support between all members, with the only notable exception being the efforts from Taiwan to assist Hong Kong in the midst of their 2019 protests, providing much needed supplies, enacting asylum measures for Hong Kong refugees in Taiwan, and Taiwanese activists traveling to Hong Kong to participate in key protest actions.
In a short time span, sophisticated tactical exchanges and counter-strategies have emerged as a key component of the Alliance’s game plan. With authoritarian regimes around the world adopting uniform policing procedures, protesters often discover counter methods by studying video clips and poring over images from other protests. Thai and Burmese activists learned how to extinguish tear gas canisters and form human barricades, thanks to widely circulated images of the Hong Kong protests. Building on that knowledge, they quickly devised their own signature tactical innovations, such as using inflatable water floats as shields from riot police.
Increasingly, there are growing parallels between online and offline social movements. The nature of the Alliance is intrinsically similar to that of the physical protests which have taken place in Thailand, Myanmar, and Hong Kong, with participants frequently shrouded in anonymity, obscuring their faces and other distinguishing features to avoid being identified through facial recognition technology. Most contributors are anonymous accounts applying persistent pressure–once they are banned on Twitter, they return with new profiles. Though it remains to be seen how effective such networks will be, new networks have formed in this manner, as international netizens befriend and exchange ideas through multiple disguised Twitter handles.
Modern protest movements in Asia have begun to shift away from singular and recognizable leader figures that can easily be targeted with arrest, which can quite effectively decapitate the command structure. The shift toward anonymity and collective decision-making—the Hong Kong protests notably utilized the online forum ‘LIHKG’ as a vehicle for collective deliberation on tactics—may prove to be a blueprint.
Future movements may not be so easily divided into distinctly online or offline efforts, but may involve a significant degree of online-offline interfacing. Anonymous Twitter profiles can still be targeted. Last year, a large wave of Hong Kongers deleted their Twitter accounts to prevent being marked by national security legislation criminalizing separatism. The same risks may apply to both online and offline spaces, as online communities have proven to be increasingly influential for real-world assembly. Alt-right platforms such as Parler have had a crucial role in recent political clashes in the U.S. The online collective Anonymous has intervened in various key political events globally, and the power of Reddit groups is increasingly felt in the financial industries as retail investors upend the stock market.
Interestingly, authoritarian governments are responding by employing similar tactics. For years, the Chinese government’s ‘50 Cent Party’, consisting of online commenters supposedly paid .50 RMB per post, have harshly attacked anything critical of the CCP. The 50 Cent Party outlines the effort that the CCP place into maintaining the appearance of organic support; this despite the fact that members routinely operate on social media networks that are banned in China, such as Facebook and Twitter.
Similar to the 50 Cent Party are the ‘Little Pinks’, who are nationalistic Chinese users such as those initially targeted by the Milk Tea Alliance. Mostly young and female, well-educated, and online savvy, the Little Pinks spin jingoistic posts on micro-blogging sites and across social media, fiercely defending China and the CCP. Many are studying abroad, with full access to all the apps and platforms. It is thought that Little Pinks were among those initially triggered by the Bright incident, with young Chinese women among the viewers of 2gether. With its 50 Cent Party and through state-run social media accounts, the Chinese government has stoked the fire of online nationalism when useful.
Also notable is the rise of online ‘tankies’. Tankies has long been used as a term to describe residents of Western countries that support authoritarian non-Western governments, and recent years have seen the rise of a new wave. Divergent from previous tankie generations, these are primarily Gen Zers that have been recently politicized, with increasing support from the CCP. This would align with broader fifth column efforts by the Chinese government, often referred to as the United Front. In contrast to the self-mocking humor of the Milk Tea Alliance, the tankies rally around an idealized China, asserting its cultural and civilizational superiority, and its territorial claims over its neighbors.
The confluence of many of these online subcultures rests in the common goal of information influence and news aggregation. The Alliance effectively operates as a network for the dissemination of content in real-time, as images of police violence and its contextual narratives are quickly circulated and reported on by global media, allowing for international pressure on the actions of an authoritarian government. Concurrently, governments try to contest the narratives of pro-democracy groups by using their online troll army. The Alliance serves as a means by which pro-democracy and pro-government forces contest their respective political truths, and what emerges is a larger pattern of convergent tactics between both authoritarian state actors and those contesting them.
Without question, the Milk Tea Alliance will be increasingly targeted moving forward. In particular, Chinese state-run media has sought to frame the Taiwanese government as implicated in secretly orchestrating Milk Tea Alliance. A December 2020 case involving two Taiwanese men arrested for circulating Chinese disinformation after traveling to China to receive training from the Chinese government, proved another sign of this. The two men fabricated false documents that were intended to suggest a link between the U.S., Taiwan, and the Milk Tea Alliance.
Indeed, authoritarian governments have sought to frame the efforts as “color revolutions” covertly planned by Western governments seeking to delegitimize protest activism, suggesting they are inorganic, and funded by foreign interference. Contrastingly, Alliance activists draw legitimacy from each other, by claiming to be part of a broader, universally human struggle that has emerged in multiple places at once.
Does it help to examine history in this case? In the early 2010s, the Arab Spring was used as a similar context to characterize the wave of protests that erupted across the Middle East, with social media hailed as a positive global force that allowed for democratization. However, the Arab Spring led to assessments that now seem overly optimistic, and ten years later, these countries are again mired in internecine conflict. It remains to be seen as to whether the Milk Tea Alliance will suffer a similar outcome. What began as an amusing online meme feud grew rapidly to a vast, decentralized, and forceful protest movement fighting authoritarianism. The wit and humor have widely remained intact, as has the resilience. But the continued campaign may be easier said than done.
Brian Chee-Shing Hioe (@brianhioe) is one of the founding editors of New Bloom Magazine and a freelance journalist and translator based in Taipei.
Is Germany Europe’s Weak Link When It Comes To Taiwan’s Safety?
Germany’s economic ties to China have been a barrier to it taking an unambiguous stance on the authoritarian state’s human rights violations and power expansion. Will it prove a risk for Taiwan’s ability to maintain democracy?
Antonia Märzhäuser April 20, 2021
In the beginning of 2021, amidst a two-month Covid lockdown, and with the temperature just below zero Celsius, things got heated at a Vietnamese Noodle shop in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood. After placing his order, a customer shouted racist insults at the owner, seemingly unprovoked. Witnesses said that, among other indignities, he yelled: “In the Federal Republic of Germany, Chinese people like you are not welcome. You are from a dictatorship country. Why are you even here?” Under normal circumstances, this incident would not have made a crease in the news cycle (doltish racism from intoxicated men is sadly common in Germany), if not for the fact that the offender was a Berlin politician from the Christian Democrats, which happens to be Angela Merkel’s party.
Two weeks prior, the European Union and China agreed on a massive investment deal poised to shape Europe’s and Germany’s future for decades. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), is heavily championed by chancellor Merkel, who pushed for its completion just before the end of 2020. The CAI is the result of seven years of diplomacy, and, in striking contrast to the message of the inebriated district politician, Merkel had left no doubt that the missive she hopes to convey to China is: “You are very, very welcome here.”
Germany’s handling of the agreement is emblematic of its general approach towards China in recent years. Agreements are rushed for the sake of swift economic relief, while long term political concerns are neglected, unnerving other EU countries and international allies. What does this mean for Taiwan? Germany’s reluctant response to China’s regional authoritarian actions undermines Taiwan’s rising economic standing and its emerging youthful democracy, particularly at a time when the events of the Hong Kong protests are still raw and tenuous.
At the beginning of the ’90s, China’s share of German exports stood below 1%. A quarter century later, China is Berlin’s largest trading partner, surpassing the U.S. This development can be traced back to Germany’s former chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s economic guidance, which was expanded and strengthened during Merkel’s sixteen years in office. During her administration, Merkel has visited China twelve times. Within that same span, she has only visited Japan six times. Merkel’s first China visit in 2006 with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao broadly outlined what their alliance would mean for Germany. During her two days in Beijing and Shanghai, nineteen contracts were signed and put into effect. Industrial manufacturer Siemens was awarded a lucrative contract to build up to 600 locomotives for China. Additional beneficiaries included SAP and Lufthansa. “German-Chinese relations have great potential. We want to expand these relations,” Merkel stated. At that time, Chinese economic growth was 12.7%, three times higher than Germany’s (3.8%).
In the following years and amidst the financial crisis, the economic bond between the two countries tightened, and trade numbers rose 10% in 2008, enabling Germany to recover from its economic downturn. Civil rights issues were not entirely ignored, but only briefly touched upon: “The dialogue with the Dalai Lama is vitally important,” Merkel said in 2008. But in the same breath, she made it quite clear that Germany will not be moving away from the One-China Policy. But after 2013, as President Xi Jinping began to consolidate his power inside and outside China, relations became thornier. Germany could not continue as before, focusing solely on economic diplomacy while disregarding human rights issues. In 2015, only a few weeks after the Chinese government embarked on a nationwide crackdown on lawyers and activists where hundreds were jailed and placed under surveillance, Britain signed several multi-billion dollar trade deals with China, and its decision to roll out a red carpet to Xi was widely criticized by human rights groups. Merkel arrived in Beijing five days later, intent on avoiding making the same mistake. But, instead of confronting Xi directly on the issue, she met privately with human rights activists and lawyers the day before returning to Germany. This led to quite an agreeable discussion on bilateral trade ties with her Chinese counterpart, and earned her positive headlines back home.
In 2015, China announced their “Made in China 2025” plan. It was now clear that China would not be content with positioning itself merely as a global trade partner. The strategy called for China to rise as a global leader in ten core industries by 2025, through increased production in technology sectors, notably robotics, biotech and semiconductors. In other words, becoming a prime competitor for German industries. Concurrently, after years of double figure economic growth, Germany nervously observed China’s growth rate starting to decline. A survey published by the influential lobby group Federation of German Industries (BDI) concluded that the vulnerability of German companies against an emerging China was moderate. However, the study noted one exception: the automobile companies. To understand Germanys dictum to preserve gainful geopolitical and economic ties at any cost, it is crucial to look at the scale and scope of German carmakers in China. In a recent Politico article, Max Zenglein from Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), summed it up as follows, “Europe’s weak point is Germany, and in Germany it’s the car industry, and in the car industry it’s Volkswagen.”
One year into the pandemic, German carmakers are still relying on an old formula. Ola Källenius, CEO of Daimler, expects Germany’s highest export growth rate to China during the next ten years. Hopes are that the same mechanisms will apply as they did a decade ago, when China helped German manufactures to recover quickly from the 2008 financial crisis. Asked about the risks of a growing dependency, Ferdinand Dudenhöffer vom Center for Automotive Research (CAR) framed his answer as a rhetorical question: “The question is which risk is greater, dependence on China or becoming a niche supplier in China?”
“Look at situations from all angles and you will become more open.” What sounds like a platitude from an inspirational quote calendar caused a stir in 2018, when Daimler appropriated this Dalai Lama quote for a Mercedes advertisement on Instagram. The post was deleted quickly, accompanied by an apology on Weibo for Daimler’s “extreme lapse” in judgement. This has become an all too common narrative – a German brand offends a Chinese political issue, a swift corporate apology follows, and business continues as usual. A questionable but common procedure in the world of globalized economics. But what about the political sphere? For decades the German government has been repeating the mantra Wandel durch Handel (“Change through Trade”), which embodies the belief that the closer the economic ties are, the more likely it is that China will follow the Western model. It is debatable if this notion is not only politically naive, but also built on a Western-centric conceit. But in the case of China it also proved to be flatly misguided. In a policy paper published in 2019 by BDI, it was noted: “For a long time it seemed as if China, through integration into the world economy, would gradually move towards the liberal, open market economies of the Western model (…). This convergence thesis is no longer tenable.”
Nevertheless, the German government maintains the Wandel durch Handel mantra. In September 2019, while hundreds of thousands in Hong Kong protested the new extradition security law, Merkel, accompanied by a large business delegation, traveled to Beijing. She attended a meeting of the Sino-German economic advisory committee, where she called on Chinese companies to invest more in Germany. She only briefly addressed Hong Kong, asking for a peaceful resolution, and making the issue little more than a footnote. When journalists revealed the cruelties occurring in Xinjiang, with millions of Uighurs held in detention camps, Germany’s response was again depressingly silent.
The German word Lippenbekenntnisse, which means “lip confessions”, best captures this lack of response. It is astonishing how many years these Lippenbekenntnisse have served as a calming alibi to continue with trade and corporate diplomacy. Since 1999, Germany and China have held an annual Menschenrechtsdialog (“German-Chinese Human Rights Dialogue”). In a recent press release, Bärbel Kofler, the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy, expressed the current situation with distressing alarm and clarity: “For some time now, I have been observing how the human rights situation in China is deteriorating dramatically.” When the ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang and the civil and political rights in Hong Kong were addressed during the annual meeting last year, the Commissioner described the Chinese reaction as follows: “The Chinese side displayed no readiness to look in detail at concrete cases and processes.”
When Germany assumed the role of rotating presidency of the EU, some expressed hope that the country would use its influence to speak up on the various violations against human and international law, and perhaps even seek a European position on sanctions. Instead, Germany pushed for an agreement on the investment deal with China before the end of its presidency. But the German government underestimated the demands of the Members of the European Parliament (MEP), who have repeatedly called for sanctioning Chinese officials involved with the violations in Xinjiang. In March 2021 these sanctions where finally put into effect by the EU, blacklisting Chinese MP’s, and resulting in a wave of penalties against five MEPs, who to the Chinese government “harm China’s sovereignty and interests and maliciously spread lies and disinformation.” Suddenly the fate of the CAI deal and several years of German diplomacy was in jeopardy, a clear indication that the business-infused German diplomacy approach was not shared by all EU states.
With Hong Kong having lost their political battle, the question now turns to Taiwan, and whether it is looking at an equally bleak future. In 2019, Xi Jinping’s New Year’s speech made clear that he was striving to unify Taiwan, that Taiwan’s independence was a dead end, and that he would not dismiss a military solution to “solve” the Taiwan question. Many saw Xi’s speech as a response to the strong and effective politics of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Since the beginning of her term in 2016, China has continuously increased the pressure on Taiwan through economic sanctions (taking on curious proportions, as when China imposed an import ban on Taiwanese pineapples this past February), fake media campaigns, and further diplomatic global isolation. Although Taiwan has been extremely successful at combating the virus, it remains excluded from the World Health Organization (WHO) due to the objections of China and its desire to bring Taiwan back to its idealized “mother country”, which is demonstrated with military aircraft drills, the intervals of which have become more frequent.
When Tsai was re-elected in 2020, there were no calls of congratulations from Berlin, while other European leaders such as French president Emmanuel Macron delivered his applause publicly. Taiwan’s national flag is absent on the official German website of the Federal Foreign Office. Instead, a white rectangle sits, both a hollow trace of a missing official diplomatic statement and a binary mark of obedience to the One-China policy that the vast majority of countries are following. At this point, Taiwan is well acclimated to these symbolic measures implemented to appease China. Taiwan has been clever enough to avoid niggling over these microaggressions, and instead has proactively formed ties outside its official diplomatic sphere and beyond the media spotlight. The relationship between the EU and Taiwan has indeed been growing over the past years in various fields and levels, says Armin Ibitz, Chair of the Institute of European Studies at Wenzao Ursuline University. Ibitz explains that, from what he caught during conferences and discussions earlier this year, the CAI deal between the EU and China was not as poorly received in Taiwan, rather, it was seen as a chance to at last finalize a Taiwan-EU deal that only became possible due to the CAI agreement.
It is this pragmatism that Taiwan has employed to effectively carve out a place in a modern globalized world economy, an approach that also characterizes Taiwan’s relationship with Germany. When Germany stayed silent after China imposed the security law on Hong Kong, Ibitz says that the Taiwanese weren’t really shocked, because the disillusionment had set in much earlier. Taiwan recognizes that Germany is too economically tethered to China to openly condemn China’s thorny policy tactics. But when talking about Germany’s role within the EU in regards to China, Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an expert in EU foreign policy with focus on EU-Asia and a former political advisor in the European Parliament, stresses that in order to get a full picture it is critical to look at the year 2016, when Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) hit record levels and prompted the EU to start toughening its stance on China. “That was when the EU started to equip itself with tools that protect the EU’s interests against China and it was driven by Germany (along with Italy and France).” Ferenczy argues that the actions taken in 2016 set the tone for subsequent dialogue between the EU and China, most notably in 2019, when the EU named China “a systemic rival”, following China’s high profile acquisitions, such as German robotics manufacturer KUKA, as well as blue-chip companies like Italy’s Pirelli, the world’s fifth-largest tire maker.
Although Germany’s trade strategy has historically been pragmatic and cooperatively driven, its response to China’s FDI growth showed that the EU has more leverage than they often believe they possess. Ferenczy suggests that it is time for the EU to take the next step and “look at Taiwan as a sovereign nation, because so far we’ve only had a conversation on Taiwan starting from the EU-China context.” With China currently expanding its authoritarianism, along with the fracturing of US-China relations and the fragility of global supply chains, it is not only Taiwan who is in need of a diverse set of reliable partners. Ferenczy’s argument to look at Taiwan as an independent state is supported by the recent anxiety of global auto makers for Taiwanese semi-conductors.
Of all countries, it was Germany that was dealt the swiftest lesson. Due to an immense increase in global chip demand, Germany’s mighty car producers such as Audi and VW found themselves suddenly in short supply of the necessary chips for the digital onboard systems in every vehicle, and had to put entire production lines on pause – a problematic situation for a country that relies heavily on its car production. Peter Altmaier, Germany’s Economy Minister, appealed to the Taiwanese government asking to boost production. Suddenly, Taiwan was asked to play savior. But it was not left unnoticed that the German government tends to grant attention to Taiwan only when absolutely necessary. In an opinion piece in the Taipei Times, author Chang Feng-lin outlines a list of occasions when Taiwan was ignored or put at a disadvantage by Germany, notably when Germany refused to authorize arms sales to Taiwan, both in the mid-‘80s and in the early 2000s. Then there is the recent discourtesy of Taiwan sending one million masks to Germany at the beginning of the pandemic, without a thank-you or acknowledgment in return, which raises the question as to why Taiwan should now rush its production of semiconductors for Germany’s sake? Ferenczy believes that given Taiwan’s extremely complex political situation and its exclusion from international organizations and official avenues of diplomacy, symbolism in fact, does matter.
It appears that the German government still fails to grasp that nuance, while other countries, as well as the EU, have. “The fact that Ursula von der Leyen (President of the EU commission) in April tweeted and thanked Taiwan for the masks, is still a huge precedent because you can now build up on it,” says Ferenczy. During the pandemic, Taiwan demonstrated how valuable it can be as a global partner. “Taiwan received a lot of sympathy in the last year for its health management and I think Taiwan needs to use this momentum. At the same time, as a global leader in the semiconductor industry, Taiwan should use its tech prowess in critical technologies as leverage to circumvent its diplomatic isolation”, says Ferenczy. On the other side, Germany will have to ask itself what a relationship with Taiwan could look like. If they want to count on Taiwan as a partner, they will need to progress towards a more reciprocal alliance. That would require not only a change of perspective, but a willingness to see a relationship with Taiwan as an independent and democratic ally, rather than a threat to China. In doing so, Germany does not have to willfully abandon its preferred approach of a business-driven diplomacy, as turning towards Taiwan would appear to be a sound strategy given the importance of the semi-conductor industry and its role in the years to come.
But it is not just external factors that will affect Germany’s relationship with Taiwan. After sixteen years in office, Merkel’s time as chancellor will come to an end at the end of this year. It is not completely unrealistic that the next chancellor could rise from Germany’s Green Party, which would make a new assessment on China policies more likely. As a member of the German Green party and the European Parliament, Reinhard Bütikofer, Chair of Delegation for relations with the People’s Republic of China, has been a reliably loud voice in demanding sanctions against Chinese officials and their violations against civil freedoms. He has also repeatedly declared that Beijing will increasingly use its economic power as political leverage against the EU. It has been thirty years since the EU last imposed sanctions on China. 2021 will be a crucial year for how China-EU relations progress, and a good moment to re-evaluate the German-China trade relationship from a different angle and raise the question of whether the perceived importance of the Chinese market is actually bigger than the reality. Europe is by far Germany’s most significant export market (in 2018 China only ranked third at 7.1 percent), after the United States (8.7 percent) and Europe (68.5 percent).
For Taiwan, the coming year will also be significant in terms of transforming the international acclaim gained during the pandemic into reliable alliances. “Taiwan never had a choice other than being very good at whatever they do, in order to survive in the direct present of a threatening neighbor”, Armin Ibitz says, but he fears that this excellence could further provoke China. China has tried to advance its own semiconductor industry and play catch-up, but is still behind Taiwan’s level. “2021 could be a critical year, when the shortage of chips becomes even greater and China is unable to catch up. Then China has another reason to gain greater control over Taiwan”, Ibitz says. For Germany and Taiwan, it will be an economic and political balancing act that they will need to navigate together. A cooperative that is crucial for confronting the challenges of a near future.
Antonia Märzhäuser (@Esther_Green) is a freelance journalist and a frequent contributor to German public broadcaster ARD.