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Original illustration by Alice Tse. 

05:35 pm | 15. July 2019

The Future of Common Destiny

The Chinese phrase “community of common destiny” may superficially echo ideas at the heart of European transnationalism — but at its core it advocates a return to the primacy of national rights over the rights of the individual.

By David Bandurski

In November last year, Red Flag (红旗文稿), an influential Chinese Communist Party journal, declared that Xi Jinping had revolutionized foreign relations theory through his concept of “building a community of common destiny for mankind.” Paired with the leader’s signature foreign policy program, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), this concept, the journal claimed, is “the banner under which China is leading the current of the times and driving human civilization in the direction of progress.”

To outsiders in Europe and beyond, such language might come across as bravado or empty posturing. But this catchphrase, which was added to China’s Constitution last year and is backed up by the global development strategy of the BRI across more than 150 countries, has at least to be understood seriously as the mark of a more ambitious foreign policy on China’s part — with a clear and stated aim to bring “transformation of the global governance system” (全球治理变革). 

What does China mean when it talks about “common destiny”? Where does this phrase come from? How has it been received in Europe? 

For our first “Echowall Dialogue,” we invited several perspectives on these questions from both Chinese and European experts. The contributions in this series are not intended as comprehensive or authoritative reads on the concept of a “community of common destiny for mankind,” or renlei mingyun gongtongti (人类命运共同体) — what China has since 2015 preferred in English translations to call “the community of common future for mankind” — but rather as preliminary investigations encouraging further discussion and research. For perspectives on how the concept of a “community of common destiny” has (or has not) been translated and received in their own countries, we turned to Sebastian Veg and Mathieu Duchatel (France), Jerker Hellström (Sweden) and Gianluigi Negro (Italy). For a deep dive into the emergence of Xi’s phrase as an ideological concept within China’s mainstream official discourse, we turned to media scholar Qian Gang (钱钢). For a more unorthodox perspective on how China’s domestic political and economic values might already be shaping destinies in Europe, we turned to historian Qin Hui (秦晖). 

We begin the conversation here by looking at echoes, and crucial differences, between China’s signature foreign policy catchphrase and similar language that has been used to describe European integration since shortly after the Second World War. A strong case can be made, in fact, that in framing its concept of a “community of common destiny for mankind,”the Chinese Communist Party drew inspiration from the European discourse of “common destiny” as a means of transnational integration and the building of an economic community of peace and prosperity. But the differences in the Chinese case are fundamental, premised on the supremacy of national sovereignty. This also makes the timing of the Chinese phrase, at a moment of uncertainty in the European project, particularly significant. 

Understanding the crucial differences between the Chinese and European conceptions of a “common destiny” may help us gain a clearer understanding of what exactly China means by this phrase its theoreticians insist has revolutionized international relations.

Origin Stories

Questions of origin can be nettlesome and controversial. According to one fairly accepted theory of lineage, the Chinese phrase “community of destiny,” or mingyun gongtongti (命运共同体), goes back to Taiwanese independence leader Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), who mentioned it in his 1972 book A Taste of Freedom (having been influenced by the nineteenth century French historian Ernest Renan and his theory of the nation). Christopher Hughes, credited with establishing the connection to Renan via Peng, has noted that the phrase was used prominently by President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan in the 1990s. However, Qian Gang’s discovery of the phrase appearing as early as 1965 in the People’s Daily, and even earlier in perhaps related permutations in works from Joseph Stalin translated into Chinese in the early 1950s, would seem to contradict the Taiwan origin theory of “community of destiny,” tantalizing though it may be. 

Understanding the crucial differences between the Chinese and European conceptions of a “common destiny” may help us gain a clearer understanding of what exactly China means by this phrase its theoreticians insist has revolutionized international relations.

 

Outside the Chinese language, it is quite clear that the ideas of Ernest Renan were instrumental in the formation of notions about “common destiny,” a connection Sebastian Veg and Mathieu Duchatel touch on as they discuss the French “communauté de destin.” 

Renan’s concept of the nation as a collective identity constituted through the free will and agency of individuals — “A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle,” he said — is crucial to understanding views of nationalism, nationhood and community as they emerged in the 20th century. Renan’s ideas, conveyed in “What is a Nation?,” his 1882 address, were an important part of the intellectual and political discourse in Europe from the late 19th century onwards. And here we must mention also the Austrian politician and thinker Otto Bauer, who in this 1907 book The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy, which touches on Renan’s ideas, argued that nations should be conceived as “communities of character” arising from “communities of fate” (Shicksalsgemeinschaften). For Bauer, as for Renan, national identities were shaped, not given truths, and they were defined by more than just common language or common geographic origin.

By the 1940s, we can find the ideas of both Renan and Bauer shaping notions of national identity in Asia. As Leo Suriyadinata details in his book on ethnic Chinese populations in Southeast Asia, Sukarno, the leader of Indonesia’s movement of independence from Dutch colonial rule and its first president, mentioned both thinkers side-by-side in his June 1945 speech “The Birth of Pancasila,” which outlined the country’s foundational philosophy. 

The ideas of Renan and Bauer were important — though of course not the only — contributions to ideas, including around the phrase “community of destiny,” that drove the formation of the European Union and its antecedents from the 1950s onward. In his forward for the English translation of Bauer’s book, published in 2000, Heinz Fischer, then president of Austria, quoted one passage in which he said Bauer had envisioned a united Europe:

Just as the development of capitalist commodity production linked the manorial estates and the towns isolated during the Middle Ages to form the modern state, so too will the international division of labor create in socialist society a new type of social structure above the national polity, a state of states, into which the individual national polities will integrate themselves. The United States of Europe will thus be no longer a dream, but the inevitable ultimate goal of a movement that the nations have long begun and that will be enormously accelerated by forces that are already becoming apparent.

The preamble to the 1951 Treaty of Paris, the document that formally established the European Coal and Steel Community and began the process of integration leading eventually to the European Union, speaks of the formation of a “broad and independent community” among the people of six European nations in order to “lay the bases of institutions capable of giving direction to their future common destiny.” 

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The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1951, creating the the European Coal and Steel Community. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 

The term “common destiny” occurs quite frequently in early references to the formation of the European community around mid-century, and readers may in particular enjoy this black-and-white publicity film created in 1958 to explain the mechanics of the European Coal and Steel Community. The film’s title is “Common Destiny.”

Understanding the crucial differences between the Chinese and European conceptions of a “common destiny” may help us gain a clearer understanding of what exactly China means by this phrase its theoreticians insist has revolutionized international relations.

 

At the heart of this idea of “common destiny” lies the conviction that the populations of Europe must form a broader community of interest transcending the bounds of the nation-state — the conflicts of the 20th century having brutally demonstrated the truth of Renan’s opening line about the nation being an idea that “lends itself to the most dangerous misunderstandings.” It is no surprise, then, that we again find the notion of “common destiny” emerging more than four decades later in the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe (TCE), signed in Rome in 2004, but in the end not ratified by all EU members: 

CONVINCED that, while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, the peoples of Europe are determined to transcend their former divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a common destiny, 

CONVINCED that, thus ‘United in diversity’, Europe offers them the best chance of pursuing, with due regard for the rights of each individual and in awareness of their responsibilities towards future generations and the Earth, the great venture which makes of it a special area of human hope . . . 

The emphasis on the individual in the above passage is clear, and for some the project of European integration meant the nation-state had become outmoded. German political scientist Erich Röper wrote in 2007, the year EU member states signed the Treaty of Lisbon, that the nation-state was “on its way out: obsolete.” Europe, through its process of integration, pointed the way to “something entirely new,” he said. “Europe’s population focuses on social solidarity as the foundation for an evolving common destiny, which will be the driving force behind an unprecedented nation-building process, whose dynamics set it apart from the concept of the nation-state of the past two centuries.” Röper employs both “common destiny” and “community of destiny,” terms still used with regularity to talk about Europe

More than a decade on, the same terms persist in discussions of the immense challenges facing Europe, which include the rise of far-right nationalist parties and hostility to the European ideal, the latter seen most vividly in the phenomenon of Brexit. These trends pose a major challenge to the European multilateral order, and the European dream of “a new kind of peace.” As Emiliano Alessandri of the German Marshall Fund noted recently: “[All] these questions not only challenge the EU-centric approach which had been at the roots of the EU external action over the past decades, but may also weaken the notion of a common European destiny.”

Given the challenges facing the idea of Europe as a transnational community, the question of its future naturally became a key agenda in the latest European elections, recalling Renan’s remarks about the nation (or in this case the transnational community) as a “daily referendum” by human populations. An article published online in Mai 2019 by Manfred Weber, a candidate for the European People’s Party, bore the headline: “Our common destiny is at stake in these next European elections.”

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At the heart of these debates over “common destiny” is the question of identity — that word used so often across the West, and beyond, these days as people search about for the root causes of division and discord. That word at the heart of the rise of the far-right across Europe; at the heart of Brexit; at the heart of Italian politics. Tough questions about nationalism and identity politics. 

Europe under the concept of transnational “common destiny” has been an experiment, what scholar Franco Zappettini has called “a political arena where embryonic post-national identities and new forms of belonging are being negotiated, challenged and legitimized.”

In Europe today, we are watching Renan’s “daily referendum” unfold.  

The emergence at just this moment of identity crisis for the West of what is being sold as a revolutionary and distinctly Chinese “common destiny” is an intriguing turn of events, to say the least. What does China’s “common destiny” promise in the way of identities?  

Nationalism and the Individual 

The ideas about nationalism we find in both Renan and Bauer, and the vision of a European transnational identity they helped to inspire, contrast markedly with the convictions about nationhood and identity held by the Chinese Communist Party — and this contrast can help us gain a clearer view of what exactly China means when it talks about building a “community of common destiny for mankind.” 

While Renan rejects the idea of nationhood arising from shared race, language, religion or geography, suggesting instead that it emerges from the individual’s search for “collective identity,” the Communist Party defines nationhood around the idea of a “great rejuvenation” of an abstracted “Chinese nation,” a grand narrative in which the Party maintains a central and inviolable role. In Renan’s imagination, by contrast, the nation is a fluid concept, defined and redefined by communities of people, a “daily referendum.” 

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In an article published in April 2019 at “Social Europe,” Léonce Bekemans writes of Europe in terms of a “community of destiny,” a “community of values” and a “community of citizens.”

Bauer, as noted in the quote from his book above, wrote in 1907 of the future Europe as a “state of states.” But he too stressed the self-determination of the individual. As Swiss historian Jörg Fisch has noted, both Bauer and Karl Renner, another key proponent of Austro-Marxism, “saw self-determination as an individual right to retain one’s own cultural identity.” 

On this question, Bauer provides us with what could be a crucial link on the question of origins to the contemporary Chinese concept of a “community of common destiny for mankind” as defined by Xi Jinping and his theoreticians. Qian Gang notes in his media study of the Chinese phrase that the earliest appearance he can find of the partial phrase “community of destiny” (命运共同体) in the People’s Republic of China appears in the 1953 translation of Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question (马克思主义与民族问题). In that book, Otto Bauer is the focus of Stalin’s indignation for his suggestion that “a nation is a community of fate arising from a community of character” (Eine Nation ist eine aus Schicksalgemeinschaft erwachsene Charaktergemeinschaft)

As Jörg Fisch characterizes the fundamental rift between Bauer and Stalin on this question, we see a familiar dichotomy emerge:

The Bolsheviks in Russia held the opposing position. They gave the right of self-determination the meaning that was fitting to make it a watchword: It was not, at least primarily, a question of individual rights, but rather of the highest rights of peoples, of sovereignty and political independence. The key aspect was the equal rights of the state created on the basis of the right of self-determination with other states.

This leads to the tantalizing question of whether and to what extent Xi Jinping’s “community of common destiny for mankind” is a re-packaging of Bauer’s notion of a “community of destiny” in the statist gift box of Stalin-era foreign policy. We should recall that the principle of non-intervention in China’s foreign policy dates back to 1950 and the signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, and that it became a core part of China’s diplomatic principles four years later with the so-called “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” outlined by Premier Zhou Enlai (周恩来) — 1) mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, 2) mutual non-interference in internal affairs, 3) mutual non-aggression, 4) equality and cooperation and 5) peaceful coexistence.

For the Chinese Communist Party today, ideas of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference that subordinate the rights of the individual to those of the state are as central and inviolable as they were then, and they form the core of Xi Jinping’s notion of a “community of common destiny for mankind.” As China analyst Liza Tobin noted recently in an analysis of the key points of Xi’s policy phrase: “The aspirations it expresses echo and expand upon themes voiced by Chinese leaders since the early days of the People’s Republic.”

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Chinese President Xi Jinping is pictured in 2017 at the first Belt and Road Forum, posing with other leaders. Photo from the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office, available at Wikimedia Commons.

What do sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference mean for China’s vision of the global community? 

The answer to this question we can return to remarks made in 1999 by then Chinese foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan (唐家璇) to the 54th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, during which he stressed that despite changes in the “international situation” since the Cold War, the principles of respecting state sovereignty and refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries “are by no means out of date.” Tang spoke of the need for “a just and rational new international order” unencumbered by the discourse of human rights, which he said was being used — noting in particular the case of the conflict in Kosovo — as a pretext for “confrontation or interference in the internal affairs of others.” The question of human rights should instead be understood, he said, through the more fundamental issue of national sovereignty:

The issue of human rights is, in essence, the internal affair of a given country, and should be addressed mainly by the Government of that country through its own efforts. Ours is a diversified world. Each country has the right to choose its own social system, approach to development and values that are suited to its national conditions. The history of China and other developing countries shows that a country’s sovereignty is the prerequisite for and the basis of the human rights that the people of that country can enjoy.

The fault lines over national sovereignty and individual rights were clearly in evidence at the UN session, where Joschka Fischer, then Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, pointedly remarked in reference to the Kosovo conflict that “non-interference in internal affairs must no longer be misused as a shield for dictators and murderers.”

European Bottle, Sino-Stalinist Wine?

China’s Party-run media have insisted that Xi Jinping’s notion of a “community of common destiny for mankind” is an “innovation of Marxist theories of international relations.” As the echoes of early Sino-Soviet foreign policy and Stalin’s criticisms of Bauer suggest, the link to China’s own Marxist tradition is there. But when it comes to innovation, this is chiefly about repackaging, and about timing. 

The essence of Xi’s concept is all-too-familiar if one takes a longer historical view of Chinese foreign policy. The phrase once again champions a state-centered approach to human rights, while subordinating individual rights to the basic question of national interest. In this sense, Xi Jinping’s “community of common destiny for mankind” can be viewed as a re-bottling of Chinese foreign policy — centered on the familiar pillars of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference — within the liberal “common destiny” vocabulary of transnational peace and common development.

These basic points are abundantly clear from the Chinese political discourse, which has characterized Xi’s “community of common destiny for mankind” as “applying a Chinese Solution and Chinese wisdom to the reform and innovation of global human rights governance.” The innovation lies in relegating all questions of individual rights to matters of 1) peace and security, 2) development and 3) national sovereignty and state-to-state equality. 

In April this year, Seeking Truth, a journal of theory published by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, explained Xi’s “common destiny” as advocating human rights along three agendas: 

On the conditions for human rights realization, the concept of a community of common destiny for mankind advocates peace and security as the basic preconditions for human rights protection; on the core content of human rights, the concept of a community of common destiny for mankind advocates the right to development as the basic foothold in human rights protection; on the relationship between human rights and sovereignty, the concept of a community of common destiny for mankind advocates sovereignty and equality [of nations] as the foundation of human rights protection. 

China’s interest in promoting a nation-centered view of international governance, human rights and development should be clear. As China expands its economic and political reach across the globe, this nation-centered view serves to legitimize its domestic approach to governance and its domestic rights situation, both of which are inseparable from the internal logic of its pursuit of development (an issue Qin Hui discusses in his piece for this series). 

In perhaps one of the clearest definitions yet of the concept of a “community of common destiny for mankind,” Xi Jinping said during his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015

We should build partnerships in which countries treat each other as equals, engage in mutual consultation and show mutual understanding. The principle of sovereign equality underpins the UN Charter. The future of the world must be shaped by all countries. All countries are equals. The big, strong and rich should not bully the small, weak and poor. The principle of sovereignty not only means that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries are inviolable and their internal affairs are not subjected to interference. It also means that all countries’ right to independently choose social systems and development paths should be upheld, and that all countries’ endeavors to promote economic and social development and improve their people’s lives should be respected.

The essential idea here is that nations should prioritize development above all, seeking points of mutual interest. Meanwhile, they should return issues of social systems and development paths, and related questions of human rights, to the black box of sovereignty and non-interference. Nations should do business, and mind their own business. As Liza Tobin wrote in her analysis of the concept: “The phrase expresses in a nutshell Beijing’s long-term vision for transforming the international environment to make it compatible with China’s governance model and emergence as a global leader.”

A key point to understand here is that in the Party’s vision of a “community of common destiny for mankind,” humanity, or renlei (人类), is perceived only through the frame of national identity. 

When Chinese foreign affairs expert Zheng Baoguo (郑保国) summarized Xi Jinping’s “community of destiny” for International Studies, a journal published by an institute directly under China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he emphasized first and foremost “the dialectical unity of national interests and common human interests” (国家利益与人类共同利益的辩证统一). “Chairman Xi Jinping’s advocacy and promotion of the building of a community of common destiny for mankind discards narrow nationalism,” Zheng wrote, “and is a surpassing innovation of statism as well as an innovation and extension of concepts of national sovereignty, involving the dialectical unity of defending national interests and the common interests of mankind.” 

Zheng’s use here of “statism,” or guojia zhuyi (国家主义), and the contrast with “narrow nationalism,” helps to clarify the core content of Xi’s vision. To the extent that this foreign policy concept is “leading the current of the time,” as the Red Flag journal claimed, what it offers is a statist vision of the future, one that repudiates individualism and emphasizes state power over all aspects of society. It is the latest iteration of the Sino-Soviet position, dating back to Stalin‘s insistence on what Jörg Fisch called “the equal rights of the state.” 

The Future of Common Destiny

If there is a fresh aspect to Xi Jinping’s concept of a “community of common destiny for mankind,” it is to be found in its global implications, in the Party’s ambition to promote the concept as offering a new system of global values and a new approach to governance. The corresponding ambition of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative has unleashed a wave of concern about how China’s practices globally might undermine values in Europe and elsewhere. 

In its March report, EU-China: A Strategic Outlook, the European Commission characterized China as “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” In a publication released last month, the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote of the implications a “self-assured and ambitious” China had for shared values like human rights, not just in the Netherlands or Europe, but around the world. “Our system of values is under pressure around the world,” the report said. “This is due in part to a more assertive China which is enjoying the support of an ever growing group of countries.”

The Netherlands report expressed concern that while “the human rights situation in China is deteriorating on multiple fronts,” China has managed, at the multilateral level, “and not without some success,” to call into question the universality of human rights. These concerns reflect a deeper unease across Europe about China’s global ambitions and what they could mean for the values underlying the international system.

Europe’s own history in pursuit of a “common destiny” provides a strong foundation to grapple with these implications as Europe engages with China, and as China tries to redefine the norms that underlie international relations and fundamental questions of human rights. This process has to begin with the clearest possible understanding of what exactly China’s values are. 

On that final note, it is always important to bear in mind that China — even absent Renan’s “daily referendum” — is not a uniform colossus, and that there can be perspectives there that add nuance to the conversation. We point readers to a fascinating piece by history professor Xu Jilin (许纪霖) that appeared in the journal Open Times (开放时代) in 2017, months before “common destiny” featured strongly in Xi Jinping’s political report to the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Xu’s essay, in which he envisions a broader East Asian community, is titled, “Imagining a New East Asian Order: A European-Style Community of Destiny.” 

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Chinese historian Xu Jilin argues in Open Times journal in 2017 for the possibility of a future East Asian order based on “a European-style community of destiny.” 

Arguing the possibility of the emergence of a transnational community in East Asia, Xu suggests that in China, Japan and South Korea a conceptual shift is already underway, from “East Asia perceived through a national view” to “nationhood perceived through an East Asian view.” In this sense, he says, Europe’s history is instructive: 

Foucault once said Germany was the core question facing Europe, turning on [the question] of German Europe versus European Germany. The first, second and third ‘Reichs’ all envisioned a European order with Germany at the center. In the end, not only was hegemony unachievable, but the German Empire collapsed, and Germany after the Second World War gradually became immersed in European consciousness. Germany today has become a cornerstone of the European Union. The difference now is that no longer is there [a question of] German Europe, and we have instead a European Germany. 

In his thoughtful imagination of a future East Asian order, Xu Jilin stresses that communities cohere in two ways — through adversarial relation to the “other,” or through shared values. East Asia’s community identity arose in the middle of the 19th century, he says, with the arrival of the European “other” in gunboats, fundamentally challenging an East Asian order in which China had been central. 

But communities based on othering are weak and transient, dissolving ultimately into narrow spheres of national interest. On this point, Xu cites the case of Europe’s historical opposition to Islam, with a note on the refugee crisis of recent years, which has reanimated ancient fears of cultural infiltration and fueled an internal crisis of European identity. Xu imagines for East Asia what he has admired in the European project of integration over the past half century: the creation of a community based on shared values transcending national interests and feeble bonds of “otherness.”

“If a community relies only on the existence of the ‘other,’ and lacks its own value identity, this community will surely be fragile, a temporary stop-gap measure, a fleeting alliance of interests,” Xu writes. 

For all its pledges of community and connectivity, Xi Jinping’s “community of common destiny” is at best a stop-gap measure to protect China’s global trade interests as a new “other” threatens those interests, epitomized by Trump’s trade protectionism and his vocal opposition to the “ideology of globalism.” As the previous global order fragments, China hopes to pick up the pieces, striking bilateral deals that masquerade as an emerging global consensus on trade, development and “people-to-people exchange.” In March, Italy became the first G7 country to ink a deal, signing a Memorandum of Understanding for cooperation within the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. 

At its foundation, however, China’s “community of common destiny for mankind” is a community of others. Its fundamental character, framed around sovereignty and non-interference, does not affirm shared values. Rather, it pledges to turn a blind eye to the “social systems and development paths” chosen by our partners in trade and diplomacy — however offensive they may be to our values, or even detrimental to our interests in a globalized world. Regarding China specifically, it demands that all nations respect the distinctness of “Chinese characteristics,” the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to China’s elemental difference, socially and politically, from the rest of us. 

The process of forming, transforming or reaffirming community can happen only through open and informed discussion of the values upheld by that community. As Europe deliberates its own “common destiny,” inspiration may certainly arrive across ancient trade routes, offering other values and other visions of community — just as Xu Jilin finds inspiration for East Asia in the European model. Before we endorse those values and visions, however, we have an intellectual and moral responsibility to understand exactly what they are.

 

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What does China mean when it talks about common destiny?

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The Future of Common Destiny

15. July 2019
Author
David Bandurski

An expert on Chinese journalism and communication, Mr. Bandurski is currently a part-time researcher at the Institute of China Studies at the University of Heidelberg. He is also co-director of the China Media Project, dividing his time between Germany and Hong Kong. Mr. Bandurski’s books include Dragons in Diamond Village (Penguin/Melville House), a work of reportage about urban development in China, and Investigative Journalism in China (Hong Kong University Press).