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Go West? No thanks
My father found the "end of the story" in a place he had never heard of. He originally dreamed of studying abroad in the USA and Great Britain. Then it became Bonn. "West Germany is really a very developed country, there are cars everywhere, society is safe," he told my mother on November 16, 1988, who followed him two years later. “What impresses me most is the cleanliness; it's just as clean outside as inside. I can walk around the street for a week and my leather shoes are still shiny. The people are friendly and helpful, the level of education is high. "
After a bitterly poor childhood under Mao and agonizing years in the rusty university bureaucracy in China, the scholarship in the West was the long-awaited liberation for my father. At the time, none of the young academics sent abroad by the reformer Deng Xiaoping thought of returning later: Who would be so stupid as to go back to China when prosperity and freedom were waiting on the other side of the globe? At the end of the 1980s my parents associated so much hope with the West that they named me after her: the Xi in my first name stands for hope and sounds exactly like the symbol for West.
America and Europe were places of longing for my aunts and uncles too: Michael Jackson and Wham !, my aunt read Kant and Hegel, and my youngest uncle protested in Tiananmen Square in 1989 under a copy of the Statue of Liberty in the dormitories Styrofoam and plaster of paris. Whoever could move west had won the lot. I felt this in the nineties when visiting China with my mother. We were admired as those who had "made it", simply because an unlimited residence permit in Germany was stuck on our passports.
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In addition to kitchen appliances from Siemens, Niveacreme and gummy bears, we also brought stories from a better world with us: Words like majority voting and the five percent threshold did not necessarily mean anything, but they could with the concept of human dignity. With the idea that no one is above the law, not even the mighty. With the thought that rulers have to respect unpleasant opinions. With the principle that the weak also have a place in society.
"A society like ours cannot tolerate too much democracy," said my grandfather, who suffered from the anger of the "masses" for twenty years during the Cultural Revolution and therefore confused democracy with chaos. He was annoyed, rightly, about the double standards of the Americans when they urged human rights in China and violated the Geneva Convention themselves. It bothered him when EU politicians demanded a boycott of the Olympic Games in Beijing in front of the cameras, only to sign contracts worth billions in Beijing months later with a happy expression.
And yet in this mélange of admiration, envy and the feeling of humiliation derived from the history of colonialism, overall positive recognition prevailed; the idea that people in the West are not only wealthier but also happier; that things are not only more progressive there, but also fairer and freer.
How am I supposed to explain Trump to my grandfather today? How do I teach him that the free world is now leading a would-be dictator who despises freedom? That there are politicians on the rise in Europe who want to abolish Europe? That more and more people in the countries where democracy was born are turning away from democracy? That many in the enlightened West are now ready to throw the values of the Enlightenment overboard? How can I blame my relatives for being happy about their xi jinping in the face of a clueless and ignorant super narcissist in the White House?
For Xi, Putin, Erdogan and all the other authoritarian rulers of the world, the tragedy that the West is currently playing is the best possible power consolidation program imaginable. For the reform movements in China and elsewhere, which have been weakened recently, it is a catastrophe. "You live in the best society in history and just throw it away?" My cousin asked me the other day, stunned. Why should young people in other countries fight for democracy when, according to a new Harvard study, their peers in the West increasingly no longer find it important to live in one?
The West's departure from its own principles was a gradual process that my family in China has been watching closely. Trump is just the temporary low: Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, drone war, NSA surveillance, the list goes on. The fact that illegal drone attacks and the NSA scandal coincided with Obama’s time and that freedom of the press in the US began to erode under him makes it all the worse. In the end, a Western head of state hardly wanted to talk about human rights in China when he was visiting Beijing, let alone stand up for them, with the exception of Angela Merkel. Sure, with what legitimacy?
On the other hand: In individual cases it was still better for the individual persecuted activist, journalist or lawyer, a foreign government stands up for you than nobody does. Whether this has to be done with a publicly raised index finger or, better, through quiet diplomatic channels is another question. Certainly, if you think of Vietnam, Iran, Latin America, double standards have always been part of the arsenal of Western, especially American, foreign policy. Even when the Bushes, Clinton and Obama spoke of universal values and said "all human beings," they often only meant America. But now America has a president who no longer even claims to be guided by values and tramples them in his own country. Who lies incessantly himself, but accuses the media of notorious lies.
If Trump now obstructs journalists and artists from entering the country and Marine Le Pen has cameramen beaten up, they will not only shoot against freedom of the press in the US and Europe. They also legitimize the detention and persecution of journalists in countries like China, Russia and Turkey. The signal to Xi, Putin and Erdogan: Everything was done right. It is the final moral declaration of bankruptcy. The paint is off. My relatives haven't seen a place of longing in the West for a long time. But a crisis-ridden, staggering giant in self-destruct mode who has lost faith in himself. Who beats about wildly and now, in order to save himself, destroys what actually makes him special. For years he wreaked havoc elsewhere and overdone himself at the expense of others. The others are to blame for the consequences.
If the Chinese state media used to agitate against the West, it could be quickly exposed as cheap propaganda. Today the propagandists can sit back and relax. The West is already doing its job itself: fake news and rumors corrode the public? We have long been under control in China. 62 million Americans vote for a mad sociopath? It's good that we don't let stupid people vote in China. Mark Zuckerberg sucking himself into the Chinese authorities? Western companies do everything for market share. Apple bans the New York Times app from the Chinese app store? They can't be that serious about freedom of the press. European governments step up digital surveillance of their citizens? China invented it.
"Why is it any different when Edward Snowden is to be arrested for high treason than if a dissident is in prison with us?" My uncle asked me in June 2013 when Snowden applied for asylum in Moscow. Well I couldn't answer him. My relatives can now afford to take a vacation on the Côte D’Azur and drive German cars, they watch blockbusters from Hollywood and buy apartments in Australia, my cousins like the same Beyoncé songs as I do. All well and good. But values? "No, thank you, we really don't need you for values," say my relatives.
Instead, they ask: Conversely, don't you need China now more than ever? Isn't Xi Jinping making more sensible environmental policy than Trump? Isn't he in favor of openness and globalization? Doesn't he seem much more presidential? Shouldn't China now set the tone in the world? My family has long known what we are now discussing in Europe under post-factual politics and erosion of trust as propaganda lies and cynicism. Because of the »end of story«. That the West is now becoming more and more like those who once wanted to be like it is the ironic punch line at a time when there is not much to laugh about.
Photo: dpa, afp, Reuters
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