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There is a dispute in the German government about the sale of shares in a Hamburg container terminal to the Chinese state-owned company Cosco. The reason: it is a matter of “critical infrastructure”. Numerous sinologists from Hamburg have therefore recently written an open letter to the German Chancellor that was published in DIE ZEIT. They demand that he prohibit the planned sale of the terminal to Cosco. I hereby join the open letter trend, which is currently highly popular in Germany, to warn the Chancellor against this warning.

Dear Chancellor,

Forgive me if I address you today and, what is more, do it in the same form as my colleagues – namely by putting my subject affiliation (media theory) at the beginning. Even if it is unquestionably true that their letter fits quite naturally into an anti-Chinese, even anti-scientific discourse, a ‘moral crusading’ that many other German sinologists have recently criticised as dangerous, these local patriotic ladies and gentlemen are far from representing the discipline. So I would like to warn you – not really of course, but I will allow myself to pretend here for the sake of format – not to attach too much importance to it. Please ignore it, just as you will hopefully ignore this letter or as you ignored the one from Schwarzer, Kluge et al., asking you not to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine (you did ignore it, didn’t you?).

The bewilderment has not only to do with the fact that these sinologists are by no means arguing from within their field of expertise which they so proudly place at the beginning. What is more, they are not even afraid to present themselves as politicians who – more political rhetoric is not possible – not only care about Hamburg, but also about “the Chinese people”. It is also not, at least not primarily, about the fact that these scholars contradict themselves when they inform you that China’s investments “do not follow a purely economic logic at all, but are geopolitically motivated” – because the investment that their own letter represents does not follow a purely scientific, sinological logic either, but is clearly politically motivated. Perhaps in future we should speak of a ‘value-oriented sinology’, in the sense of the German government’s ‘value-oriented foreign policy’, in order to distinguish these efforts from a truth-oriented sinology (and this kind of politics from a power-oriented one).

No, this bewilderment is mainly related to the reasoning why you please may prohibit the sale of shares in the Tollerort container terminal to Cosco – because the EU has identified the PRC as a “systemic rival”, the UN accuses it of “crimes against humanity” and China does not rule out a military invasion of Taiwan.

All three points are highly complex and cannot be discussed in detail in this letter. (Although I find this Cold War terminology of systemic conflict quite interesting – not least because there are no systems rivaling here at all, only different political programmes.) To avoid misunderstandings, let me be clear that human rights violations are not simply negligible, that I am in no way advocating (any) war – and that it is important to distinguish between China’s society and China’s state. Of course, if a state-owned enterprise wants to buy into the ‘critical’ infrastructure of another state, it is necessary to weigh up the risks – including those that result from saying ‘no’ to such an undertaking. China itself does that, too – and prohibits foreign investment in many important economic sectors such as critical infrastructure, telecommunications or numerous technology sectors. Even if we leave aside the fact that, according to the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, Tollerort is not part of German’s critical infrastructure, economic and political concerns still need to be balanced; while the two systems are monopolists, and the economy cannot and will not decide politically et vice versa, both systems are structurally coupled and do not operate in a social vacuum. I guess we are on the same page here.

But in the end these points all boil down to the fact that China is measured by different standards than the notorious human rights and world rules violator USA, with whom cooperation is apparently no problem at all. This double standard (the opponents of China try to dismiss the reference to it with the term ‘whataboutism’) has recently become an integral part of Germany’s foreign policy – and now it is apparently also to become a part of sinology. I find these functional regressions worrying – don’t you? It is true that the Cosco deal would damage the ‘credibility’ of this new, value-oriented foreign policy, as the letter writers state – in the sense that this decision would not quite fit in. But how credible is a political decision that does not follow the code of power? Very true, Mr Chancellor – not very credible. You, who tried to smuggle the decision pro Cosco past the cabinet and the public (in order to achieve the desired result through passivity: namely through tacit approval by expiry of the objection period) know this very well. You also know that this supposedly value-oriented foreign policy is not much more than a signal to the USA that the German government will support the self-proclaimed ‘greatest country in the world’ in its increasingly fierce, increasingly desperate power struggle against the evil Chinese regime – more than that: that it is prepared to go along with the hypocrisy that this struggle is about values. As Wolfgang Hirn noted in a recent ChinaHirn editorial, our current Foreign Minister is not ashamed to call on China to abide by the rules-based world order while ignoring the fact that the US does not – they don’t even recognise the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is supposed to prosecute and punish genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

You know all that – but most of all you know that you have to be a bit hypocritical here, too. That’s part of the job, isn’t it? Despite the high costs associated with striving for ‘independence’ from China in this interconnected, globalised world. The academics of the Ifo Institute, who are fortunately committed to finding the truth, have repeatedly pointed out that such efforts of a ‘renationalisation’ of the West on the basis of ideological arguments would be associated with high political and economic costs for all involved. As me and my colleague Lihua Chen wrote in a recent article, deglobalisation therefore does not mean less global society, but simply less prosperity. Especially an export-oriented economy like Germany can hardly afford to turn back on itself. Unilaterally turning away only from China would be bearable for our country, but would cause costs almost four times as high as Britain’s EU exit, not taking into account the possible retaliatory measures by China, which is already reacting to these attempts at decoupling. (A much more detailed analysis of reform needs and opportunities of international value chains can be found here.)

I would therefore like to formally apologise to you for the – literal! – indiscipline of my colleagues, who are supposed to formulate truths without regard to political ideologies. I will also urge them to devote the next few weeks to the self-exploration of sinology – and to think about, and I quote Heiner Roetz: “what they themselves are actually talking about and what they want to take a stand on, and, if necessary, how it should relate to the corresponding expectations of their texts, but also of contemporary China”. With Confucius : 子不語怪力亂神. (In his text “Silence or Speech”, Roetz beautifully demonstrates how a sinologist can speak about something that should not be spoken about.)

However, I would also like to apologise for the brazen lie that they declare the exchange with China to be important and desirable, but at the same time are willing to endanger further research trips to this country with their letter. It is supposed to show you how important this issue is to them. In reality, however, it only shows that they do not care about future-oriented China research. For, as the truth-oriented sinologists Alpermann and Schubert have noted, besides maintaining a dialogue with Chinese universities, such research is not least dependent on access to the country. If they really cared about the Chinese people – or just the Chinese students – they would not risk breaking off contact with them for an open letter, the effect of which on German politics is likely to be non existent. In fact, of course, their letter is no more addressed to you than this one.

Yours sincerely

Markus Heidingsfelder

PS: I have just learned that you have cleared the way for Cosco/China. Congratulations! And thanks for continuing the policy of cooperation and connection with China. Right, dependence on Russian energy has nothing to do with this deal – thanks for pointing that out. And what does Taiwan have to do with it? Exactly, much less – unless the German government wants to reactivate the Struck Doctrine and declare that Germany’s security is also defended in Taiwan. Why one should resist China’s growing influence, i.e. swim against the tide, only makes sense to those who fear for American influence, doesn’t it? Thanks to your decision, shipping through Hamburg is now becoming more attractive. It will bring more turnover, secure jobs in the city, bring additional capital to it and into the expansion of the region’s infrastructure, and Cosco – if they accept this third-class offer – will not move its trade flows away from Hamburg to other North Sea ports. I wish you a good time in China – I’m glad you’re not arriving there completely empty-handed, that would be extremely rude. If you are nearby, feel free to visit me in Zhuhai. I would very much like to know what you think of Ali Abunimah’s recent statement: that Germany is not a sovereign state. Thanks to you, this can no longer be easily said of Hamburg!

*Of course not.