Naivety is no longer an option

Fourth “enter the future” event: “China’s rise – How can Europe keep pace?”


02.05.2022



Nearly 100 guests at the TauberPhilharmonie in Weikersheim plus another 125 taking part via a live stream witnessed the fourth event in the Wittenstein Foundation’s “enter the future” series on Wednesday, April 27. The speakers – Dr Janka Oertel and Professor Sebastian Heilmann, both renowned Asia experts – discussed the complex challenges Europe is facing in view of China’s emergence as a huge economic and (geo)political force and engaged in an active exchange with the audience – both online and in-person.


Even though China has recently lost some of its power as an engine of growth, it remains a huge, dynamic force of increasing global importance. “You can’t talk about the future without alluding to China’s role”, said moderator Benedikt Hofmann (Editor-in-Chief of MM MaschinenMarkt), setting the scene for a most entertaining evening that attracted numerous contributions from the audience. Dr Anna-Katharina Wittenstein, the event’s host and a member of the Wittenstein Foundation Board of Trustees as well as the Management Board of WITTENSTEIN SE agreed: “In terms of the world order, China has become a factor of utmost importance. For strong exporting countries like Germany, it represents an opportunity – but also a complex challenge, including for regions like ours with so many quality jobs.” The aim of the “enter the future” event series and the principal purpose of the Wittenstein Foundation is to identify precisely these interactions in society and encourage a public, interdisciplinary and intercultural debate..


A stronger Europe, internally and externally


In her keynote speech Dr Janka Oertel, Director of the Asia Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, provided interesting and very personal insights into China’s military and geopolitical dimensions. For more than two years now, she has been unable to enter China, even in her capacity as a research professional. This is not simply due to the Coronavirus restrictions in force there and to China’s strict pursuit of a “zero-Covid strategy”. The situation is additionally aggravated by safety concerns: “Researchers can no longer take it for granted that it’s a safe place to be. There have been several instances in the last few years where international think-tankers have come under scrutiny from the increasingly authoritarian Chinese state due to changing legal parameters and suffered long imprisonment in appalling conditions – simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time”, commented Oertel, author of numerous publications on EU-China relations and Chinese foreign policy, among other things. According to Oertel, to understand how China’s role in the world has evolved, you must look first of all at the country’s enormous economic growth since the late seventies and then consider the ideological perceptions of ruler Xi Jinping. However, the point of reference here is not Europe but the rivalry for global leadership with the United States. “Xi not only sets economic targets but also military ones. By 2049 – the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic’s foundation – Xi wants China to have a military that can win wars rather than simply fight them”, Oertel explained. As far as the current situation in Ukraine is concerned, she sees no signs that China will take on a role as mediator in view of the good relationship with Russia and the “unlimited partnership” signed early this year: “China is clearly on Putin’s side”, she continued. Europe’s role in this new reality must be to become stronger, both internally and externally – demonstrating unity and solidarity internally and taking the initiative externally – in order to play a part in shaping the global environment in which China operates.

Reduced dependence on aggressive superpowers

In the evening’s second keynote speech Professor Sebastian Heilmann, Chair Professor for Government and the Political Economy of China at the University of Trier, outlined the dangers and challenges which Europe will have to face in the future as regards the economy, technology and competition among systems: “China is meanwhile the number one trading partner for at least 124 countries throughout the world, way ahead of the US. The worldwide pandemic has further accelerated this trend: exports of medical protective equipment and face masks, though also electronics, for instance, led to a veritable export boom in China in 2021 – up 30 percent compared to the previous year.” Heilmann, who is widely considered to be one of Europe’s most internationally distinguished experts on China, also warned of the precarious situation for German (and local) SMEs, many of whom are world market leaders. China’s rise to become the hub for global high-tech exports particularly puts Germany’s key interests at risk. “We need to ensure our economic security through free trade agreements and by transforming supply chains. It is also imperative that we boost Europe’s capacity to innovate as well as value creation and education focusing on STEM subjects – and, last but not least, preserve our defenses through alliances such as G7+”, Heilmann asserted. It surprises him that for years the palpable systemic differences between Europe and China were pushed aside and ignored: “We were forever trying to integrate China, even though China never wanted to be integrated and made that quite plain. We now find ourselves in a new system of coordinates with a lot of aggressive superpower rivalries and are amazed that there’ll be nothing left of us if we let them have their way.” According to Heilmann, reduced dependence on superpowers in general will be a crucial factor in maintaining European sovereignty – as the present situation with Russia clearly shows. He wound up by postulating that China’s rise could also have positive effects on Europe: “The competition among systems, the open conflicts and the visible vulnerabilities are triggering a structural, inescapable pressure for change that will force Europeans to reposition themselves. It will be a wake-up call for us – and that wouldn’t be a bad thing!”


Following the two keynote speeches and sundry contributions from the audience, host Dr Anna-Katharina Wittenstein summed up the main points very neatly: “It’s about taking a realistic view of the world and saying goodbye to wishful thinking. For us as a family business, it’s vital that we maintain our entrepreneurial independence. Ultimately, it’s up to us to encourage innovativeness and inventive talent in young people in partnership with other companies, local authorities and educational institutions – as a way to position ourselves successfully in systemic competition with China.”


For a recording of the complete event, including the discussion with the audience, see www.wittenstein-stiftung.com/enter-the-future.

Next “enter the future” event

Plans are already underway for the next event in the Wittenstein Foundation’s “enter the future” series, which is provisionally scheduled for October 13, 2022 The subject of this new exchange between two high-profile speakers and the audience will be biologization, i.e. the increasing integration of principles of nature in modern economic areas.


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The speakers (from left to right): Professor Sebastian Heilmann (Chair Professor for Government and the Political Economy of China at the University of Trier), Dr. Anna-Katharina Wittenstein (Member of the Wittenstein Foundation Board of Trustees), Dr. Janka Oertel (Director of the Asia Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations) and moderator Benedikt Hofmann (Editor-in-Chief of MM MaschinenMarkt).

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Dr Janka Oertel is Director of the Asia Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of numerous publications on EU-China relations and Chinese foreign policy, among other things.

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Professor Sebastian Heilmann is Chair Professor for Government and the Political Economy of China at the University of Trier and one of Europe’s most internationally distinguished experts on China.

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The two speakers engaged in an active exchange with the audience – both online and in-person.

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Host for the evening: Dr. Anna-Katharina Wittenstein (Member of the Wittenstein Foundation Board of Trustees and the WITTENSTEIN SE Management Board)

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