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08:16 am | 23. September 2019

Schooling Europe on China

With concerns growing in Europe about China's expanding influence, there are calls for more expertise about this rising power. But what would better knowledge of China look like? We spoke with former Swedish ambassador to China Lars Peter Fredén about his preliminary idea for an "EU China School." 

By Echowall Staff

Europe is determined to get smarter about China. Earlier this year, EU leaders sounded a more sober note on relations, calling for greater awareness of China as a strategic rival. "The period of European naivety is over,” French President Emmanuel Macron said during a news conference. "The relationship between EU and China must not be first and foremost a trading one, but a geopolitical and strategic relationship." 

In its "EU-China Strategic Outlook" released in March, the European Commission referred to China as not just a cooperation partner, but as "a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance." The document set out 10 actions focussed on deepening engagement and reciprocity across a range of areas, including security, investment, open procurement, environmental standards and human rights. "Finding the right balance of policy approaches is a political judgement, requiring the attention of the European Council," it said. 

But how can "political judgement" be better informed at the EU and member state levels?

In a now widely cited report on China's political influencing efforts in Europe released in February 2018, the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) and the Mercator Institute for China Studies wrote that "it is crucial that European policymakers gain a better understanding not only of [China's] motivations and goals, but also of the various players, channels, and tools involved as well as the impact of its influence in Europe." Two authors of that report, Thorsten Benner and Kristin Shi-Kupfer, wrote in the Financial Times that "[n]owhere is the gap between the scale of China’s efforts and public awareness of the problem larger than in Europe." 

An expert at the Institute of Asian Studies in Slovakia, Matej Šimalčík, wrote last year that more must be done to address the "knowledge gap" in understanding China. "European institutions at national and EU level should promote investment in independent, locally funded China expertise (including language skills, and combine this with research and training programs connecting China experts with a larger community of researchers, journalists and NGOs," Šimalčík wrote.

At a conference in Prague last June, Lars Peter Fredén, Sweden's former ambassador to China and Mongolia (2010-2016), floated the suggestion of an "EU China School" to train policymakers and practitioners in Europe, which could be "modeled on the rigorous and goal-oriented military language schools existing in many member states." Echowall reached out to Lars Peter Fredén to hear more about this preliminary idea. What knowledge is necessary to gain a clearer and more strategic view of China?

Lars Peter Fredén, whose career has focussed on China and Russia (Soviet Union), first studied Chinese in the 1970s at Tufts University, Middlebury College and the University of Stockholm. He was among the first batch of foreign students to study at Shandong University from 1980-1981, right at the start of reform and opening in China. From 1984-1986, he was Sweden's vice consul in Hong Kong, and he was deputy chief of mission in Beijing from 1998 to 2002. 


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Image provided by Lars Freden. 

Echowall: We reached out to you to talk about this preliminary idea you’ve introduced for an "EU China School.” Before we dive into that, you’ve just returned from a bicycle tour along the Yangtze River. You're pretty serious about biking in the country. 

Lars Peter Fredén: Yes, I just got back from biking from Wuhan to Nanjing, plus a couple of hundred kilometers before and after. I have biked every summer and sometimes winters – winters in South China, obviously – since 2011. I’ve traversed most of the provinces of the heartland, except for the far northeast, Tibet and a couple of other provinces. Altogether, I've done 12,337 kilometers so far. You see, we bikers tend to be protective of every kilometer we have covered, for each has its own personality.

Echowall: You've seen China from the ambassador's chair and from the seat of a bicycle. What is it that keeps drawing you back? 

Lars Peter Fredén: I really tip my hat in respect, admiration and gratitude to the ordinary Chinese people, mostly farmers, I have met during my peregrinations. They have been unfailingly helpful, hospitable and relaxed. A soothing and, indeed, uplifting contrast to the shrill voices one hears from the country’s official spokespersons. 

Echowall: Now, about this idea of yours. We’ve heard the idea in Europe for some time now that there is a pressing need to understand China better and to have better informed policymaking. This year, Macron announced the end of "European naivety" towards China, and so on. You’ve said that we urgently need a critical mass of policy makers who really know China. Why the urgency?  

Lars Peter Fredén: Better late than never. China’s rising power makes knowledge about it imperative. The way China exerts that power, frequently not in a benign way, makes it urgent.

China’s rising power makes knowledge about it imperative. The way China exerts that power, frequently not in a benign way, makes it urgent.


Echowall: You’ve floated the idea informally in various forums that an “EU China School” might be an appropriate response to this urgent need for better-informed policymakers. Could you elaborate? 

Lars Peter Fredén:  I have in mind something goal-oriented. Yes, modern Chinese language would be the core. It would also cover things like the basics of early Qin dynasty political thought (先秦哲学), which goes back to the origins of many Chinese political concepts, and also Tang dynasty poetry (唐诗), which included social and political commentary that still resonates. No knowledge taught at the EU China School would be knowledge for knowledge’s sake. No oracle bones, phonetic changes in Archaic Chinese, or studies in Qing dynasty bureaucracy – fascinating as all those topics are. 

Echowall: You’ve also talked about this China School as a place that would train students quickly, challenge them to keep up, and winnow out those who couldn’t. This would result in an elite group, an “EU China corps” you’ve called them. What would this elite be like exactly? What kinds of skill sets are we talking about?

Lars Peter Fredén: To train people quickly in Chinese is not possible after childhood. But to do it faster, more rigorously and thoroughly than is done in European academic institutions today is certainly possible. The main goal would be to give students reading skills that are actually at "working level." I have met few products of the European academic world who can actually read Chinese anywhere close to the speed with which they read Western languages. Regrettably, I am no exception.

Echowall: Could you give us a more concrete idea of coursework and curriculum at the "EU China School"? You say that all courses must be goal-oriented. How would this work? ​

Lars Peter Fredén: The core of the curriculum would be contemporary Chinese language, with an emphasis on the Chinese language as used by the Chinese Communist Party – the terms and their usage. Students would also need to have full literacy about the Chinese internet. 

The focus would be on "realia," on modern China as it is, not as it is portrayed. This would include how the Party is organized and actually works. It would include the united front, the way China attempts to co-opt and influence foreign nationals and groups, and so on. It would include an understanding of Chinese propaganda at home and influence operations abroad. It would cover the basics of cybersecurity. It would cover China’s geography, and its economy. It would cover history, focussing on events since the First Opium War in 1839. Also, the People's Liberation Army, the various security services. The Chinese economy, of course. 

Students would need to know how to read a Chinese CV to understand where officials have been in their careers and how they fit into the system. A brief introduction to Communist Party royalty, the so-called "princelings." Also, the history of PRC-EU relations and its key documents. We would cover case studies of PRC relations with EU Member States. The basics of history and politics of Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora.

Echowall: Who do you see as potential candidates for the "EU China School"? Do secondary school graduates have sufficient life experiences to understand these complex issues, or would the School provide further training for young professional who have already gained some experience in foreign policy, politics and so on? 

Lars Peter Fredén: The students should come directly from secondary school. The younger, the more receptive to rote learning, which studying Chinese is about in the beginning – and for a long time after, too. Also, only young people will be able to put up with the curriculum, the successful completion of which demands discipline and sacrifice. I agree they will not always have sufficient life experiences to understand China, but they will certainly be old enough to acquire the tools to do so. And even when some of the things taught go over their heads one hopes they will stick with them and later in life they will realize their significance. Young professionals who already have initial experiences in foreign policy, politics and so on may also be admitted to the school, but I am skeptical that they will succeed in acquiring the language to the level needed. They are more likely to have developed other significant and competing interests.

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Anhui province, August 2019. Lars meets meets a new friend on the road in China. Photo courtesy of Lars Peter Fredén. 

Echowall: You talk about this "EU China School" generating an elite group, a “China corps.” That word, "elite," can sometimes raise hackles. 

Lars Peter Fredén: Yes, the word “elite” raises hackles in Europe. In China, it doesn't. I know of no society as unashamedly elitist as China’s. Let’s be honest – learning Chinese as an adult is not for everyone. Only an elite will succeed to the level I have in mind. They will be an elite either because they are exceptionally talented, or because they work exceptionally hard. In rare and happy cases, both.

Echowall: Further to this question of skill sets and students, where would you propose the EU finds the requisite expertise for its school? I mean, if academic sinologists are clearly not enough, and the skills have been lacking, how can the right teaching staff be found?

Lars Peter Fredén: I am convinced there are lots of teaching staff frustrated by the slow pace of instruction in academia today. I think they would leap at the chance to teach at this hypothetical EU "China School." 

Echowall: You say that the school could “promote cohesion” in EU policy toward China. Needless to say, the EU doesn’t always come together so easily on China, and priorities differ from country to country. How do you see the school serving this purpose?

Lars Peter Fredén: "EU China School" graduates would promote cohesion in EU policy because they would have a common frame of reference, the experience of having assimilated the same curriculum in more or less the same way. But it would not ensure cohesion – no corps could achieve that. If the school is good enough and rigorous enough, those who get through it will have the esprit de corps typical of survivors.

One of the most important tools would be the distinction between “China” and the Chinese Communist Party. This is a basic distinction many people, including policymakers in the EU today, often miss.


Echowall: How would you ensure on the other hand that students coming out of the school were not too limited and circumscribed in their thinking about China?

Lars Peter Fredén: The school would give alumni the tools to think for themselves. One of the most important tools would be the distinction between “China” and the Chinese Communist Party. This is a basic distinction many people, including policymakers in the EU today, often miss. Just reflecting on that could keep students busy for the rest of their lives.

Though the school would be goal-oriented and contemporary, it is likely to produce, in the fullness of time, many graduates who branch out to classical China studies or other aspects of the Chinese world that aren't immediately practical.

The Swedish Army Language School, which I attended 49 years ago and which teaches military Russian, has produced few who went on to become professional army officers, but a slew of graduates who became professors of the Russian economy, Russian literature, the modernization process under Peter the Great and so on. Its graduates can now be found in all walks of Swedish life – in academia, journalism, politics, science and technology, and in the business world. This has helped make discussions about Russia in Sweden unusually well-informed. That’s where we want to get with China and Chinese.

Echowall: Do you see any way the goals of your "China School" could be achieved within existing institutions, for example in academia? 

Lars Peter Fredén: The EU "China School" could, for practical considerations, be collocated with academic institutions where Chinese is taught. But it must be kept separate from existing institutions. Only by starting from scratch can the goals I have sketched out be attained. It may be useful to establish two "China Schools," for geographical reasons, and to promote a healthy competition between them. 

23. September 2019
Echowall Staff