What could China learn from Europe?


In the nineteenth century Europe’s key cultural impact on China has probably been its influence in modernizing the Chinese state. In the 1870s and 1880s, Chinese engineers who visited Europe realized in no time that Europe’s successes were not just due to technological advances but were more deeply rooted.

One returning scholar was Yan Fu, who translated the works of Montesquieu and Adam Smith, which introduced Western ideas to China and changed the way subsequent generations saw the world around them. Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics made the theory of social Darwinism popular. Although the writings of Bakunin and Kropotkin led some Chinese towards anarchism, the most influential streams of political thought among the elite were those of liberalism and socialism, which then made their way into the wider society through nationalism aimed at China’s modernization. Until the end of World War I the teachings of liberalism dominated public thinking, but the Treaty of Versailles sent China the message that the Western powers had exchanged their liberal worldview for the policy of force. In the post-war years, socialist ideas quickly caught on as they emphasized the common good and not the individual as the key motive of restructuring society.

The teachings of socialism and Marxism gradually became more widespread in China. It had been a widely held belief that these ideologies could only become successful in a developed capitalist country, but the Bolshevik revolution demonstrated that Socialist and Marxist ideas could release enormous energies from the tyrannized classes of underdeveloped Russia. One of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, Li Dazhao believed that since China was even less developed than Russia, its revolutionary potential was greater.

Europe influenced China in several other ways throughout modern history. China had to abandon its hopes of becoming a universal power and to settle for being just a state like any other, only bigger. This meant the acceptance of a Westphalia-type setup, which introduced the new concepts of sovereignty, territorial integrity and clearly defined borders.

The two key events of the post-World War II era that have left their mark on China’s view of Europe were the consolidation of the Communist regime in China and the process of European integration. Following the end of the Cold War, many Chinese scholars were convinced that the globe would be dominated by one superpower and several regional powers, which would eventually lead to a multipolar world order. Studies on Europe are usually based on this presumption, therefore Chinese analysts usually first discuss whether the European Union can be considered an independent international power, in particular whether it can act independently of the United States of America. Independence from the USA has become China’s yardstick of Europe’s place in the world.

There is no such thing as an independent approach to Europe’s role in today’s world. Chinese analyses of Europe’s place in the world often reflect their own preconceptions. Observations about Europe mostly reflect the hope that the international order is on its way towards a world in which there is not one single dominant power but several politically equal regional centers, a world with a culture characterized by diversity and an economy characterized by interdependence. Even though some Chinese authors do understand the complexity of decision-making procedures in the European Union, the difficulties of finding consensus in an enlarged Europe, and the traditionally pivotal role of the Franco-German axis, the majority of them more or less see the EU as a single actor on the global scene. Chinese are fully aware of Europe’s weakness on the international political scene, which is largely due to the Union’s cumbersome and non-coordinated foreign policy profile.

The Asia-Europe Foundation conducted a survey in 2006 on how the Asian media, the elite and the ordinary citizen saw the European Union. Three leading newspapers were observed for a full year for the frequency of EU-related news, their relative significance and themes. The biggest daily published about 60 pieces of news on the EU monthly, while the leading TV channel featured a dozen news items on the EU monthly in its evening news program. Most of these news items were not leading ones and were usually unaccompanied by any commentary. The researchers queried 400 ordinary Chinese citizens about their knowledge and opinion of the European Union. The majority of respondents said that China’s key partner was the USA, followed by the EU, and somewhat surprisingly adding that the EU was likely to take over America’s pole position at some time in the future. In links with the EU, trade and finance were considered the most important. Most respondents associated the EU with the euro and trade when asked the question: what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the term EU? There was a general consensus that the euro was the most important symbol of the European Union. The third part of the survey involved interviews with representatives of the Chinese political, economic and media elite as well as of civil society. 95% of the interviewees said that the EU was a major power, and they also agreed that the EU was one of China’s key partners alongside America and Russia. The opinion of the political elite was more positive than the economic elite’s: the latter gave an unequivocal answer, putting the USA as clearly the number one partner of China. However, to the question whether the euro would ever replace the dollar in international money markets as the leading currency, the economic elite gave a surprisingly open and positive answer: most respondents did not rule out the possibility of this scenario. Let us not forget though that this was before the Eurozone crisis. The opinion of the political elite differed: they believed that, due to America’s political dominance, the dollar would maintain its top spot. In general terms, the EU was considered most important by the political elite and the least important by the media elite, but all four groups expected the EU to take on a more important international role in the future.

The EU became China’s leading trading partner in 2004, and China is now Europe’s second most important trading partner behind the United States. The total value of EU-China bilateral trade grew more than sixty-fold since 1978, and Europe has worked its way up to become China’s number one supplier of technology. Germany is China’s key European trade destination, absorbing a third of all Chinese exports to the continent.

To many Chinese authors Europe symbolizes the spirit of the modern age, all the more so as they see their own aspirations materialize in European policies. Chinese analysts agree that Europe is not only keen but increasingly manages to build a key international position independent of the USA since the end of the cold war. More and more Chinese academics realize that the EU not only talks about the necessity of an effective multilateral system but also puts those ideas into practice. Some believe that this European aspiration stems from Europe’s postmodern foreign policy orientation and the neoliberal school of international relations. One of China’s leading Europe experts, Professor Feng, is often heard saying that the majority of Chinese have an overly generalized and idealized view of Europe’s position in the global pecking order. Professor Feng argues that the EU lacks one of the key prerequisites for status as a global power –military power – but that what it lacks in military might, Europe makes up for in extensive economic and diplomatic relations. Accordingly, he considers the EU as an incomplete and unbalanced pole of power. Many analysts put the emphasis on cooperation in the framework of the European foreign and security policy. Some of them are convinced that both Europe and China wish to strengthen economic globalization and curb political globalization, i.e. American political and cultural hegemony. Moreover many in China believe that the Chinese economy is more open than the often protectionist European economy.

China does not see Europe as having a global strategic vision – primarily because Europe is divided internally hindering it to speak with one voice on the international political scene. Due to these internal rifts in Europe, apart from trade policy, Sino-European relations take place at the level of the member states and the Union as a whole. China – known to steer clear of sensitive issues during international talks – does support Europe’s soft-power policy on the surface, but in reality has always been avid for hard solutions. The failures of Europe’s foreign policy in the Balkans and the Middle East have exposed the weaknesses of the soft-power approach to China too.

The one area where Europe’s economic, political and symbolic unity is beyond question is the single currency, the euro. Having said that, China still has no idea whom it should negotiate with on international monetary issues. Europe’s institutional representation is muddled, unlike in the United States, where there is a Treasury Secretary (finance minister) and a Chairman of the Federal Reserve (central bank governor) and that is it. According to Chinese predictions, in 30 years’ time there will be three major currencies in the world: the yuan, the dollar and the euro.

China still has a rather haphazard and changeable view of the EU. In the 1970s, China saw the EU as the embodiment of the capitalist world, the state-monopoly and imperialism, a political union of Western imperialist countries. It speaks volumes about the age that, in the seventies, the Eastern European press commented on European integration in much the same way. The Chinese defined the European Union as an ally of the USA, as Washington’s instrument to control Western Europe and as a political formation born out of the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States.

These beliefs were based on Lenin’s theory of imperialism and the Maoist “three worlds” concept. Back in those days, the popular Chinese line of thinking saw three reasons for the nations of Western Europe to create a European Union. Firstly, European integration was thought to be the upshot of the unbalanced development of capitalist politics and economics. America’s power was believed to be superior but provisional, which would gradually give way to a rising France, Germany and Italy. With this predicted shift of power, the Chinese thought that the aim of uniting Western Europe was to gain progressive detachment from the USA. Secondly, the European Union (the Common Market) was regarded as a product of the competition between Western Europe and the United States. With the spread of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence and the collapse of the colonial system, the West was no longer best placed to compete for the markets of the industrialized and developing world. The Chinese were in no doubt about the objective of the six founding members of the Common Market: to secure their grip on key markets. Thirdly, the Common Market was seen as an offshoot of state-controlled monopolist imperialism. Monopolization is one of the basic features of imperialism — Lenin tells us. The European Coal and Steel Community was the first step towards international monopolization and a logical continuation of the Italian, German and French monopolist economies’ post-war development. The EU symbolized the highest level of European monopoly, created between private and state monopolies.

In the Maoist “Three Worlds” theory, Western Europe was America’s ally but also China’s potential partner for a joint fight against the Soviet Union. Intriguingly, from an intellectual point of view, in the 1960s and 1970s China had a bigger impact on Europe than vice versa. Many Western European intellectuals and the student movements of 1968 saw their own aspirations – namely their rejection of the establishment – in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This only went to show how fragmentary their knowledge of the reality of the situation in China really was. Chinese analysts reckoned that the aim of the USA was to subdue Europe by way of its economic, political and military unification. When Europeans realized what the USA’s plans were, they brought into being their own Union in order to be able to counteract American and Soviet weight through economic and political unity. Nevertheless, in military terms, Europe needed America and NATO to protect it from the Soviet threat.

These rough-hewn theories were then replaced in the 1990s by a more sophisticated and better grounded view of the EU. From this point on European studies became more social science oriented in China, devoting more attention to how the EU and its policies work. Chinese academia changed its opinion and no longer believed that the European Union had been founded to counterbalance another economic or political world power. China now understood that the main motivation behind the EU was to secure the conditions for economic development and long-term peace through regional cooperation.

China began to study Europe and the EU methodically, dissecting it from an economic, political and cultural perspective. In the late 1990s, China recognized that Western powers were still members of the same family and that globalization only drew family ties closer. Hence, the main trend of development of international relations pointed towards a multipolar world rather than towards one without any poles. In such a world order the European Union’s mission would not be to simply act as one of the poles but to use its political and economic clout and become a key diplomatic player.

This Chinese fascination with European studies stems partly from the fact that they see Europe as a potential model for integration involving China and Taiwan or the Asian economies. The market economy reforms led not only to economic growth but also created new social problems in Chinese society, such as regional disparities, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, problems of public health and the mass influx of the rural population into cities. These problems generated a degree of social instability that could undermine the position of the ruling Communist regime. In response to these domestic social challenges, Chinese researchers started looking into the welfare and social security systems of European countries and into the regional policy of the European Union. It is significant that most of the Chinese scholars visiting Brussels came to study European social policy. This keen interest is attributable to the fact that China can only envisage a successful social security model with a strong state presence; therefore the Chinese are more curious about European achievements in this field than about the American model based on the idea of self-support. For some Chinese intellectuals, the model focusing on social equality and environmental friendliness instead of economic efficiency could serve as an example when implementing the long-cherished Chinese dream of “harmonious social order”. Just as European thinkers such as Voltaire or Leibniz once felt that another distant society was much closer to the ideal society, some Chinese may feel that way about Europe today.

The peaceful rise of China is the number one priority of the Chinese political elite, who collect all available analogies and lessons from around the world. China has several lessons to learn from the integration of modern Europe. European countries first fostered close links with one another and then extended various forms of cooperation to more and more areas on their way towards widening integration. The success of this process could serve as an example for the future development of an Eastern-Asian Community. On the other hand, while rising to the rank of a global actor through this process of integration, Europe was wise enough to maintain good relations with the USA within the framework of their political and military alliance. Thanks to the Atlantic alliance and their economic interdependence, the USA did not see Europe’s integration as a challenge to its dominance. The Chinese often refer to the USA-EU alliance as the “Western collective hegemony”, indicating the strength of trans-Atlantic ties. In parallel with its rise, the European Union commanded an increasingly important role in international institutions in the creation of which the USA had a decisive part. In fact, Europe became a major international player without becoming a competitor or challenger of the USA, and it did so by aligning itself to the international order built by the United States.

As China assumes a growing role in international organizations it can rely on the EU’s effective doctrine of multilateralism as a model to follow, as opposed to the USA’s unilateral approach. So a proper management of relations with neighboring countries, key global powers and the international community is a key factor. The ongoing enlargement of the Union is seen in China as proof of the fact that the EU is an attractive club that more and more countries wish to become members of, which in turn further strengthens its international clout. The 2004 Big Bang enlargement of the European Union – the reunification of Eastern and Western Europe – confirmed that Chinese conviction. Nonetheless, some of the ramifications of this last round of EU enlargement make China somewhat anxious. Most of the new member states had been liberated from Communist rule only a decade or so earlier, and with the Soviet Union now gone and consigned to the history books China remains the only major country governed by a Communist party.

Some in Europe have the belief that Europe could become China’s “tutor”, introducing this vast country to the world of fundamental European values such as soft power, consensus-based foreign policy, multipolarity, a social model built on justice and solidarity or environmentally-conscious living and business. But China has a different view. No doubt that China is sincerely interested in, studies and uses the achievements of the West and of Europe, but the idea of Europe becoming China’s tutor is mere fantasy. Nevertheless there is a middle ground how one can approach this issue. Continuing intensive exchange of views and structured dialogue at different levels, reinforcing institutionalized political and academic contacts to enhance the depth of Chinese knowledge about Europe’s values and achievements would definitely be beneficial for both of us.

Through a series of future papers focusing on some selected aspects of potentially relevant fields of EU know-how transfer (regional policy, social policy and the issue of multilateralism) the author proposes a modest contribution to the above objective.

Attila Marjan
Attila Marjan
Hungarian economist, PhD in international relations. Based in Brussels for fourteen years as diplomat and member of EU commissioners’ cabinets. Two times visiting fellow of Wilson Center in Washington DC. University professor and author of books on EU affairs and geopolitics. Head of department, National University of Public Administration, Budapest.


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