Thinking Strategically: An Interview with Horst Fabian, EU–China Civil Society Ambassador and Independent Researcher

Thinking Strategically about Civil Society Assistance in China

This interview was conducted by Dr Andreas Fulda1 as part of a research project commissioned by Geneva Global. It is published by China Development Brief and Geneva Global. Geneva Global is an innovative social enterprise that works with clients to maximize the performance of their global philanthropic and social impact initiatives. The interview reflects the independent opinion of the interviewee and does not represent the views of the publishers.

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To view the Chinese-language version click here.


Andreas Fulda (AF): Between 2007 and 2013 the European Union allocated 224M€ for development assistance to China. The EU has provided funding to Chinese CSOs through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (1,9M€), the NGO Co-financing mechanism (7,1M€), and the thematic instrument Non-State Actors and Local Authorities for Development (7M€, 2011-13). This amounts to 7,1% of overall funding of 224M€. You call on the European Union to significantly increase its support for Chinese civil society. Why should the EU get more involved at a time when increasing numbers of bilateral development organisations are phasing out their development assistance to China (AusAid, GTZ/CIM, DFID, CIDA)?

Horst Fabian (HF): As you already mentioned civil society development cooperation has been lagging behind. Most development cooperation with China, not only of the EU but also of its member states has been state-to-state development cooperation. This was due to pragmatic reasons. Secondly, my view is that China has developed fast but in a very uneven way, mainly economically. The main institutional logic of Chinese development has been state-driven and is characterised by market liberalisation, with state-owned enterprises and a state-controlled civil society development. Civil society has developed fast as well but in a controlled, restricted way and not as fast as China’s economy. Therefore civil society is far from mature. The Chinese civil society actors are in need and have expressed the need for further support. In comparative terms small investments would have a potentially big impact.

At the same time the state has treated various sectors of China’s civil society differently, leading to uneven legal reforms. Lastly, there have been reforms which have facilitated registration and state financing for social service organisations and social enterprises. But there is still no legally protected space for religious and civil rights NGOs, and the status of environmental NGOs is far from clear. Further, it can be argued that civil society can make an essential contributions in most partnership projects. Let me give you an example based on my experience. The EU environmental project was always eager to cooperate with European experts supported by the German Center for International Migration and Development (CIM) which worked in Chinese civil society organisations – their only possible civil society allies. Finally, from another point of view the support of Chinese civil society by the EU is more than development cooperation. It is a contribution to a social and politically inclusive, citizen-orientated development that is driven in part by Chinese civil society. Last, not least the EU– China strategic partnership can only live up to its expectations if both societies are involved. Otherwise, the partnership will be an elite and commercial project or just a partnership on paper. A partnership has to be lived in regular societal interactions. Today the conditions in terms of easy transport and communication are in place.

AF: Civil society is still a relatively new activity area for the European Union and its member states. What could be new and innovative funding models for supporting China’s civil society actors?

HF: Here I refer to your proposal regarding innovative funding models for people-to- people dialogue between Europe and China, which is very well designed. Therefore I limit myself to some short comments. First of all, civil society cooperation needs funding, needs a funding mechanism which is open to broad applications and facilitates the engagement of European mainstream civil society. It should also comply with the following requirements: clear and realistic criteria for supporting problem-focused, goal-oriented and geographically limited projects. Funds should be professionally managed by third parties, not by the EU administration itself. Therefore it should be transparent and fair. The example of Northern Ireland can serve as a real success story in this respect. The peace process accelerated after the US provided a fund, proposed by Senator George Mitchell, which allowed a multitude of small, cooperative and very effective projects. This approach could also be brought to fruition in EU-China civil society cooperation.

AF: I understand that in terms of your vision of EU-China relations you place a great emphasis on citizen diplomacy and civil society collaboration. You think that it is a good way of reinvigorating the EU- China partnership. What is your understanding of citizen diplomacy and how citizens can play a role in the EU-China partnership?

HF: First I would to like to stress that the concept of citizen diplomacy is rather new in the European context and follows largely in the cultural tradition of the United States. The rise of this concept in the European context might be fruitful since we now see the emergence of a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of the European Union. In my understanding of citizen diplomacy I refer to Joseph Nye, an author who also coined the concept of soft power. He wrote a short piece about citizen diplomacy in the New York Times in 2010. It starts with the observation that in the information age soft power is on the rise, though other aspects of power remain important. Soft power means the capability to develop and promote globally credible narratives and the capacity to frame events and trends for a global audience.

Similar to Joseph Nye I prefer a rather broad understanding of citizen diplomacy. It includes all kinds of social, economic, cultural dialogical and cooperative encounters which contribute to mutual understanding and building of trust. This means that we are not only talking about direct political endeavors such as peace movements. The main effects of citizen diplomacy are the international promotion of ideas by horizontal dialogue and the change of attitudes and values by co-learning. We cannot understand the rise and potential of citizen diplomacy without analyzing its subterranean driving forces: transport and communication revolutions facilitating rapidly growing economic interdependence, the rise of a global internet and dramatically growing global travel. China and Europe exchange goods and services worth about 1 billion euros a day. The global internet now has three billion users, about 550 million each in Europe and China. Ten years ago travel between Europe and China was largely restricted to professionals. Now the number of Chinese tourists to Europe is rising exponentially from 2 million a decade ago to probably 12 million in 2015. Nevertheless, the global internet and personal encounters create rather different impacts. Communication via internet leads to the spread of and access to information and facilitates mutual debate and understanding, but it is rather weak in terms of creating trust and trust networks. Personal encounters on the other hand facilitate mutual understanding, the development of trust and trust networks and shared group identities. I think that this has been also the case in the core group of the EU-China civil society cooperation. A recent study about China’s image in the European public has shown that personal intercultural encounters of every kind including tourism promote more complex and balanced images of China. Nevertheless, the main drivers of citizen diplomacy on both sides are not tourists and touristic encounters but professionals, scholars, researchers, business owners, managers, politicians, public administrators whose experiences are based on often regular, routine encounters. But the growing density of the economic, cultural, etc. network between Europe and China is not only facilitating citizen diplomacy; there are strong arguments and evidence to assume that the expansion of citizen diplomacy is contributing heavily to the legitimacy and stability of the EU–China strategic partnership.

AF: In a sense you are advocating the combination of online and offline activities…

HF: Yes, but I think it was rather important that a core group of civil society “ambassadors” met several times. This way within this core group personal ties and trust could develop. The advantages of citizen diplomacy in comparison with other kinds of diplomacy, including public diplomacy, which tends to promote narratives reflecting national interests, is that it values two-way dialogue. It starts from difference as a matter of fact and tries to understand and respect difference. There are no hierarchies and communication occurs horizontally. It is an open-ended reflection starting from group-specific prejudices based on primordial “national” ties reviewing them in a process of dialogue. There are no fixed, ready-made messages and no previously agreed results. This is why it has a large potential to change perceptions, attitudes and values. Citizen diplomacy can also help develop shared goals and narratives in cooperation projects from the bottom-up. Therefore EU–China citizen diplomacy means at least two things: it is, in cooperation with dedicated, promotional state agencies, an excellent incubator of common projects, designed and managed from the bottom-up. Another lesson learned from the latest EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme is that it enables the co-creation of shared narratives.

AF: What specific contributions can citizens make to help reinvigorate the EU-China partnership?

HF: We need to bear in mind that there is a rather big distance between Europe and China, not just geographically but also culturally and politically. The potential for mutual misunderstandings thus is high. This could provoke the challenge of rising economic conflicts in the context of a changing international constellation. The impact of China is rising, for example when we look at the share of global GDP, which is likely to rise from 17% in 2011 to 27% in 2060. In relative terms Europe will lose some of its importance. The combined percentage of France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy of the global GDP will decrease from 24 % in 2011 to less than 10% in 2060. Therefore the key task is to create shared goals and values as well as trust and trust networks to counter this threat. In these areas I see key contributions of citizen diplomacy to the strategic partnership between the EU and China.

AF: You have been talking about citizen diplomacy but equally you are very keen to mainstream the inclusion of civil society actors in the partnership. How could civil society collaboration be mainstreamed across the broad portfolio of EU-backed initiatives in China?

HF: By my latest research on China’s transition towards sustainability I have been convinced that civil society can make a big contribution in developing and communicating a shared vision of sustainability development and cooperation. In China and in Europe there are very detailed and well-designed plans, but the general public does not know about them. So this could be a big goal of mainstreaming of citizen diplomacy. But then of course the question remains how to do it? A first step should be the political institutionalization and formalization of such endeavors.

The current People-to-People agreement between the EU and China is rather vague. It might be useful to update it by establishing formal civil society partnerships between Europe and China. This could be accompanied by an agreement among leading European and Chinese umbrella civil society organisations. In terms of political-administrative procedures there should be routine screening procedures in every new and continued EU–China cooperation project to ascertain the possible space for civil society cooperation. Besides there should be procedures and formats on how to include civil society cooperation in existing institutions. For instance there is an EU-China Renewable Institute in Beijing and they are cooperating in fact with civil society. But I really doubt that there is a department in this Institute mandated for this strategic task and a section in the European Union which keeps track of such practices. I think that such tasks and practices should become formalised. We talked earlier about the idea of funding civil society cooperation so I will not repeat this point here. I also think that it would be very useful if an institutional infrastructure of cooperation could be created with node institutions and competency centers on different levels in the science and in the civil society realm and with interfaces to economic organisations. They could function as information relays and could have linking functions as well. Last but not least I suppose that because of the big cultural differences, every kind of effective cooperation with China presupposes the labour of cultural translation and intercultural management. Therefore it might be useful to have a network of institutionalised cultural translators and intercultural managers, just as Germany had the CIM experts in our civil society portfolio. If these steps would be realised this could make a rather big difference.

AF: You were in charge of the East Asia portfolio of a German personal cooperation programme of the Centre for International Migration and Development (CIM/GTZ). In a recent publication you have stated that “in terms of resources the CIM portfolio was probably the biggest European public investment to support the development of Chinese civil society. From 2001 until 2014, when German development cooperation was phased out, CIM placed in total 30 CIM civil society experts on demand within Chinese partner organizations”. Please explain the CIM model and how it has contributed to the maturation of Chinese civil society.

HF: It was a rather interesting experience and an unplanned and unexpected success story. In the beginning our civil society portfolio was totally demand- driven. The idea was not mine or one of my consultants. It was the idea of a Chinese partner, Huang Haoming, the head of CANGO, an NGO umbrella organisation. At first I had been rather skeptical. Actually I was not only skeptical but rather ignorant before the first placement in 2001. After we gained some experiences we developed a clear concept. Our support for Chinese civil society was focused first on cluster development by creating what I call infrastructure institutions – for example capacity building, research, consultancy, building networks, etc. – and then on preparing or promoting experimental social innovations on a rather small scale. Our support for cluster infrastructure development for the Chinese civil society sector was focused at capacity building capabilities at organisations such as CANGO in Beijing or NPI in Shanghai. We also supported networking or setting up NGO research institutions at Tsinghua University and Xiamen University. Supporting the development of thematic or sectorial networks was important as there was no tradition of horizontal cooperation between NGOs in China. The second focus was developing small experimental innovative models of instruments, for instance your experiments with participatory instruments such as the Future Search Conferences in China. Another expert in Guangzhou, Professor Gransow, developed social impact assessment tools and supported the introduction in China. In the Chinese context it was an important innovation to have tools for civil society to gauge the social impact of big infrastructure projects.

Nearly all CIM civil society experts have been fostering international cooperation between Europe – in particularly Germany – and China. The best example for this has been in the field of EU-China Climate NGO exchange and cooperation. To understand the suitability of this instrument we have to remember that this is a very different instrument in comparison to the prevailing concepts of development cooperation. It is demand-driven. These are not CIM projects steered by CIM. The role of CIM is screening and deciding the requests and supporting and monitoring the placement. As the Chinese employees employ the CIM experts as so-called integrated experts the Chinese partners are at the steering wheel and therefore the CIM are in the midst of the Chinese reform process and experimentation. This very special CIM architecture has been especially useful in such a politically sensitive area. Though it is a rather sensitive sector there have never been real political problems.

This forced me to review the dominant image of Chinese NGOs: GONGOS, by which I mean NGOs which are closely embedded in state and party relations are classified as dependent and therefore bad, whereas small grassroots NGOs are considered as independent, contentious and good. By my on-the-ground activities I learned that GONGOs can be rather open, active, modernizing partners with a horizontal NGO culture, if managed by engaged, open-minded leaders full of integrity. In contrast, we selectively made not so good experiences with rather small NGOs led by charismatic founders which did not allow consultancy towards transparent, participatory and professional organization development, because they wanted to stay in control.

AF: Let me get back to your idea about intercultural managers and translators. In a way the CIM programme was a means to embed European experts in Chinese organisations. This required good intercultural communication and cooperation skills. You have been promoting this role for the general EU-China partnership. But what would be key pre-requisites to play this role well? Among those thirty experts you must have seen both light and shadows.

HF: In real life there is always light and shadows. Nevertheless, in my view the shadows have been small and did not obstruct the general positive performance and feedback. While in China you always need good intercultural competencies; this is particularly true in the civil society sector. You are right if an expert does not possess these capacities of cultural translation the expert’s effectiveness will be rather low in terms of contributions to projects and international cooperation. Nevertheless, if I consider the overall feedback of our partners about the performance and record of the CIM experts, they have been rather good. In the civil society sector it is really useful that German or European experts have Chinese language capabilities, though I do not think that if he or she is really strong in terms of intercultural competencies this is a condition sine qua non. But if possible Chinese language capabilities are really useful for a qualified communication with the staff and partners without intermediaries.

AF: This brings me about our following segment about perceptions of China in general and perceptions of Chinese civil society in particular. It seems that it is quite debatable whether those people who are already playing the role of intercultural managers or translators are doing their job very well. It appears that a lot of European policymakers do not seem to have a good understanding of the current state of China’s civil society. What are common perceptions and misconceptions of China’s civil society?

HF: Let me start with the misconceptions. Not only for politicians but even more for the general public Chinese civil society is often nearly invisible. They do not see what is going on in mainstream civil society. There are some exceptions. If civil rights activists face repression then it is reported here. Lately there have been many social conflicts and movements which have been perceived here, as for instance the Wukan incident. The dominant impression the public and politicians get from China is that China is a repressive state. These perceptions in my view are mainly framing China in terms of Western democracy. Chinese political reality is measured only in terms of our model of democracy.

The questions asked are whether the Chinese system is in line with or whether or not it converges with ours. From this perspective and this frame people are not able to see the big potential of mainstream Chinese civil society to push for change. The challenge is to reframe our understanding of China by sticking to democracy as goal and universal norm but considering the Chinese context and supporting our Chinese partners to explore a Chinese way to democracy and an adapted but not an exclusive in the sense of a unique Chinese model of democracy.

I think that citizen diplomacy, because of its dialogical capacity to question one- sided frames and to develop co-narratives, can contribute to a more substantial understanding of China – including its risks and negative aspects.

AF: How could European policymakers gain a better understanding of the possibilities that Chinese civil society pose for the EU-China strategic partnership?

HF: Let me answer this question by addressing the issue of the general low China competence in relevant European institutions on all levels. According to the brochure on the German Bundesland NRW’s relationship with China, which was produced by Nora Sausmikat of the Stiftung Asienhaus, the China competence on the communal level is rather low leading to an under-utilization of potentials of cooperation. The European Greens did not even have a China expert within their faction. It would be a big step if the EU on all levels and in different kinds of institutions would invest more in expanding its China competences. Other steps in this direction, for example when European politicians travel to China, could be routine exposure to Chinese civil society organisations. An inspiring example for this could be the visits of the German minister for the environment. During his stay there as a rule was a meeting with environmental NGOs organised by CANGO and with support of a CIM expert. Chinese civil society should also be a standard theme in the mass media and in schools. The high possibility that environmental movements and conflicts will accompany China during the next decades should help to make this feasible. There are other resources and opportunities which could be used as well. For instance most of the German Bundeslaender have small but relevant civil society departments which could be mandated to research information and to diffuse information about Chinese civil society. These are some very first practical ideas.

AF: Are there any other good ways that Europeans can gain a better understanding of Chinese civil society?

HF: My first point is the observation that there are cracks in the above mentioned China image, especially among the well-informed public, including politicians. The European public begins to understand that China is on a common but different journey towards a sustainable innovation economy and society. This crack could facilitate the development of a new perspective and a new perception and framing of China. If you look at China not only from the democracy perspective but from the sustainable development perspective then people see that China is generally investing heavily in innovation. Most of this innovation, e. g. the development of five of seven so-called strategic emerging industries, are related to the sustainability issue (i.e. energy efficient and environmental technologies, new energy technologies, new-energy vehicles; new materials and high-end manufacturing at least partly). A lot of people already know that China is the biggest producer and the biggest market in terms of wind and solar energy. This trend probably will be reinforced by the forthcoming Paris conference on climate change. There are good reasons of hope that the role of China will change from that of a laggard and brakeman and that China might take the role of a climate policy leader in cooperation with the EU, and maybe even with the US. China is increasingly seen by the EU as an interesting cooperation partner in sustainability fields as documented by several policy agreements with China within the framework of strategic partnership. This leads me to my most important point. Policy experts are well informed about what is going on in China in terms of sustainability innovation and the possible role of civil society. What is lacking is a shared sustainability vision that convincingly shows and argues why Europe and China are well positioned to become the leaders of a renewed third industrial revolution towards a new model of sustainable development. Such a shared vision would enable Europe and China to convince and mobilize their respective publics. The European vision should consider that sustainability reforms often pose the question of building blocks of gradual, selective democratisation, not in the Western sense of elections and multi-party systems but nevertheless of small but real steps towards democratisation.

AF: It is very interesting that you juxtapose electoral democracy with what could be termed more participatory forms of governance, where citizen participation plays an important role to bring about sustainable development. Would you mind elaborating on this a little more?

HF: I do not plead for participatory democracy as an alternative model to electoral democracy. This kind of juxtaposition is an outdated debate. Some varieties of democracy, such as people’s roles as “contentious veto public”, “supervising public” and “legal actions of the public” – which is still weak but since the new Environmental Law of 2014 with enlarged legal spaces – have developed recently in China. My starting point is that we have to acknowledge and in a certain way respect the Chinese leadership’s policy decision on priorities of their agenda, if it is not political reform.

In the setting of principled debates about political models with our Chinese partners we should elaborate the advantages of full-blown democracy: But in pragmatic cooperation initiatives the focus should be on lower level goals of cooperation which are shared by our Chinese partners – not losing out of sight the perspective of a virtuous circle of co-developing more ambitious projects with shared, more higher-level goals. This step-by-step approach based on shared goals and the potential dynamic of a virtuous circle is one of the building blocks of citizen diplomacy as elaborated by Marc Gopin, an ardent practitioner and a theorist of citizen diplomacy, in To Make The Earth Whole.

Here my argument is that, as a matter of fact, the path of sustainable development chosen by the Chinese leadership not only is a focus of fruitful cooperation in itself but at every step and in manifold ways it poses questions of democratisation, not the big question of a democratic breakthrough but of gradual steps facilitating sustainable development innovations and of building blocks laying the foundations of a future house of democracy. This is a perspective not unfamiliar to the Chinese philosophy of change and reform. The CCP political scholar Yu Keping even developed a theoretical concept and strategy of incremental democratization within a theoretical discourse of universal democratic values when he postulated “Democracy is a good thing”.

Let me just name and explain some of the sustainability challenges which will be opportunities for such small steps of democratisation. Sustainable development pilots and innovations as a rule require stakeholder and citizen participation. The Chinese are beginning to learn this insight by their failures. For instances many of the low-carbon city experiments and eco-city experiments have been failures because they were designed and implemented without any relevant citizen and stakeholder participation. In China there have been some first selective participatory experiments but these have not yet been scaled up. EU–China cooperation could contribute to consolidate and mainstream sustainability experiments with institutionalized stakeholder and citizen participation. If and as China strides ahead on the sustainable development path more opportunities will arise. Sustainability science and innovation, in contrast to traditional concepts of science, are based on trans-disciplinarity, meaning the co-learning of science, state and society actors. There are other interesting trends within China.

The dramatic urban air pollution crisis, often named Airpocalypse, an expression indicating the dramatic dimensions and impacts, has developed into a crisis of trust and legitimacy of the Chinese government. To regain trust the government had to introduce relevant reforms. An interesting example, which only got scarce attention in Europe, is the mandatory, real-time environmental information disclosure for cities but also for the biggest polluting enterprises, of which there exist about 15,000. This will have a big impact in terms of transparency and of pollution control as these enterprises produce 70-80% of Chinese air pollution. The Chinese NGO Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), led by Ma Jun, which in a Green Choice Alliance with other NGOs is at the forefront of several environmental initiatives, has developed pollution maps and apps which are nowadays widely used in China. Every morning the educated Chinese in the big Chinese cities look at their apps to learn about the current level of air pollution and how they and their children should react to it. What is at stake in the Airpocalypse are not only pollution issues alone but challenges of democratic governance such as public participation and monitoring, transparency and accountability. As the improvement of air pollution can only be realized within the next two decades or so these democracy issues will accompany Chinese development for some time.

Another relevant issue in this context is the Chinese way or the institutional logic of renewables development, which has so far been rather state-centered. While this has facilitated the big success of the last decade, the next phases of energy transition will be increasingly based on so-called distributed energy. This will require decentralisation and democratisation as communes are involved in energy production and as buildings are used as decentralised entities for efficient energy production and consumption. The path to distributed solar energy has been prepared by new policy incentives for distributed solar energy at the beginning of September. All these developments will mean big steps away from the current, centralised state-controlled energy model in China.

AF: This is really fascinating and ties very well into our next segment about philosophies of change. What kind of contribution could the European Union and its member states make in China’s transition towards what you call a “market-driven, innovative, knowledge-based, more inclusive, more just and more sustainable economy and society”?

HF: First I would like to hint to the fact that this quote of mine has been a summary of the development vision of the new Chinese leadership for the next decade. The first challenge and step is to try to understand the vision of the Chinese leadership on its own terms without denying our conviction of and commitment to full-blown democracy. Then we have to acknowledge as a matter of fact that democracy in the Western understanding is no priority in the next decade of the Xi Jinping reign, at least if the leadership can control the agenda, though this is not sure. The real national priorities of the leadership are market reforms, transition to an innovation economy, environmental reforms, gradual social innovations towards a better balance of state and civil society including the reduction of social inequalities.

Referring to the last point the new law regarding registration of social enterprises and social service NGOs is a first step in this direction, just like the gradual reforms towards social inclusion, e. g. of urban migrants. China has one of the worst Gini co- efficients of social inequality world-wide. These issues of economic innovation and viability, social inclusion and environmental sustainability are framed as building blocks of a transition towards a sustainable development path. When we consider the strategic relevance of these sustainability issues it is evident that China has a great interest to cooperate with Europe. In terms of environmental sustainable development and social inclusion Europe is the reference model. Though Europe is in the midst of an economic crisis it can still make some significant contributions towards these goals. I suppose that sustainable development in terms of social and economic and ecological sustainability can, should and will be the overarching issue of the EU- China strategic partnership. If we look at the sectorial bilateral partnership agreements it is already the base line of cooperation.

AF: Are there any preconditions for Europe to play a positive and constructive role in China’s development?

HF: The preconditions for Europe to play a positive and constructive role is to be able to look at Chinese development scenarios, both from the Chinese, including the Chinese leadership, perspective and the European and global perspective of sustainable development. This empathetic change of perspective is the first precondition and would enable Europe to explore a number of cooperation opportunities which are not visible from a narrow European perspective.

The second precondition and biggest challenge for Europe is to develop a shared sustainability vision together with China. This not only would facilitate EU–China sustainability cooperation but also enable Europe and China to act as global leaders and locomotives on the path to global sustainability. It will only be possible to develop such a shared vision if civil society on both sides has an institutionalized and legally protected voice as an integral part of this process of generating and communicating a sustainability vision.

Only if we develop a shared vision will it be possible to bring the issue out of the offices of well-informed policy experts into the global public and marketplace. For me this is not just a challenging but also an exciting perspective. A shared sustainability vision has the potential to mobilise the European and Chinese citizens to be part and agents of this process. To give you a short example: Just as Chinese and European youth are fascinated by the internet they will be also fascinated by the energy internet, which can and must be built up in the next decades as one big building block of sustainable development. This and other issues framed by a shared vision of sustainable development have the potential to electrify the respective publics in general but in particular the European and Chinese youth.

AF: You need briefly explain to me what you mean by energy internet? Is this a metaphor or should we understand this term literally?

HF: I refer here to the concept of the third industrial revolution as elaborated by Jeremy Rifkin who consulted both the EU and China concerning industrial restructuring towards a sustainable economic development model. Rifkin’s concept of the third industrial revolution has four building blocks: First, a shift to renewable energy; second, the distributed, decentralised production of energy within each building unit; third, as solar and wind are not as steadily available as fossil fuel sufficient and cost-effective storage capacities at different levels in the energy net are critical; fourth, to make disposable these new sources of energy you need to connect these new sources of energy with the demand of the energy consumers by a smart energy grid. This is what I refer to as Rifkin’s ‘energy internet’.

AF: Let us talk about how could existing partnerships between Europe and China be leveraged to enhance the impact of citizen diplomacy and civil society collaboration initiatives?

HF: First of all there is a huge untapped potential on the local level for strategic cooperation between European civil society and city partnerships. The leverage would be rather large because there is not only an agreement between European and Chinese mayors but there are many EU–China city partnerships and also several, mostly thematic networks of European cities and big global city networks, all with a focus on low-carbon and sustainable development. Civil society cooperation with these city networks and bilateral city partnerships would be win-win situations and could be very strong leverages for European and Chinese cooperation as such. Additionally big leverage possibilities can be mobilized if European civil society and science activities, especially sustainability science activities, are systematically linked. I suppose that sustainable science actors are conceptually quite open to such ideas. An important precondition of broad and effective cooperation would be to explore and decide how to create effective interfaces between science institutions and civil society actors.

AF: What you are suggesting is that groups of very well informed insiders need to open up. These people need to engage with the wider public, whether it is in Europe or in China. We started our conversation talking about citizen diplomacy and civil society collaboration. But realistically, what kind of impacts can be achieved by these means?

HF: The main contribution will be that cooperative civil society projects for pragmatic low level goals will establish trust and trust networks, which are essential but scarce ingredients for effective international cooperation. In terms of trust networks we have made very constructive experiences within the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme in general and within the climate NGO cooperation between Germany and China in particular. Stored trust accumulated by past regular civil society interaction is a big asset on which future cooperation can be built.

The second big contribution of citizen diplomacy is developing shared goals and values on the societal level which no other actors are able to make. A precondition of this is the institutionalization of regular and ongoing dialogue and cooperation and a steady mutual flow of ideas. Shared narratives cannot be developed in the context of one international conference. Flows of ideas can only take place, as Alex Pentland and his team have verified in Social Physics, within social networks. These cultural transformations are only feasible if cooperation is institutionalised within durable networks and structures.

A third pragmatic but effective contribution of civil society can be made when stakeholders and citizens are included in cooperation projects. They can mobilise the necessary societal acceptance, legitimacy and support for often challenging political and economic projects. If such projects are embedded in popular participation there is a chance of establishing a kind of virtuous circle by building storages of support and trust for future bigger challenges. The mutual flow of social innovation ideas between European and Chinese innovation societies can be another contribution of citizen diplomacy because innovations are facilitated by dense interactions, a large number and diverse ideas within the context of consensus building.

To sum up and put it simple: A conflict of interests between political, economic and societal partners who are accustomed to work and communicate jointly, who know and appreciate each other and who share some common perspectives is easier to resolve. We have to acknowledge that we are starting from a situation where we cannot agree on all values. Nevertheless, even with a minimalist “ethic of strangers”, the way it is understood by Kwame Anthony Appiah, we will be at least be able to work and live together in a sustainable way without endangering global stability – with the perspective of future rounds of virtuous circles by co-developing shared norms and values.

AF: In a way the vision you lay out is very clear. Would you mind giving a few more examples of what you consider sustainable civil society partnerships between Europe and China?

HF: This is not so easy because mainstream European civil society is not yet broadly engaged with China. When I talked to one of the leading members of a European association of civil society organisations he researched within this organisation about European-Chinese projects and there was not one positive reply. It is much easier to name some sustainable US American civil society partnerships with China, for instance the successful campaign against Apple. This campaign was directed specifically against the IT supply chain of Apple where toxic materials were used in the IT production. This campaign was organised in China by Green Choice, which received support from two big US NGOs, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Pacific Environment. There are many opportunities of such kind of NGO cooperation for European mainstream NGOs but these opportunities now still are used only selectively and marginally. Nevertheless, in Europe I can think of two specific examples. My favorite example is the cooperation between Germanwatch including other German climate actors and the China Climate Action Network (CCAN) which was facilitated by Patrick Schroeder, a CIM expert working with CCAN. There also has been a smaller project of the Global Nature Fund, the international arm of Umwelthilfe, which set up the China chapter of the global Living Lakes Network. It was supported by CANGO and some other Chinese environmental NGOs and coordinated by Mountain River Lake Sustainable Development Organisation (MRLDO) in Nanchang. However I do not know the actual status of this project. Some international NGOs, so-called INGOs, play really significant roles in China. In the context of the big issue of global energy transition, the fight against what is called coal lock-in is decisive for future energy scenarios. The China chapters of WWF and Greenpeace are playing a leading role within the rising renewable and sustainability advocacy coalition in the Chinese and global conflict against the fossil fuel advocacy coalition – mainly coal. Recent reports and activities of WWF and Greenpeace supported by very knowledgeable international professional networks such as Carbon Tracker have been very effective. If we reflect on the dimensions of this conflict we have to acknowledge that some of the conflicts regarding sustainability issues are of global nature though with national variations because of different national landscapes, e.g. in terms of resource endowments. You may know that the Koch brothers, which own a huge US coal conglomerate, are leading a heavily financed campaign against renewables, not only in the US but also globally, since the Koch brothers are interested to export coal to China. Viewed from this perspective the promotion of sustainable development and the fight against the still incumbent anti-sustainability coalition in many countries is a global task and another reason to reinvigorate EU–China civil society cooperation.

AF: Finally, you have been talking about possibilities and constructive and pragmatic approaches. Do you see any limits to this approach based on citizen diplomacy and civil society cooperation? Are there certain things that people need to be aware when they chose to go down this path?

HF: We already spoke about light and shadows before. Citizen diplomacy and civil society cooperation is no magical solution for everything. There are certainly limits and also some demanding challenges or even threats. One limit is that civil society movements – international movements, too – are sometimes one-sided single-purpose movements which therefore lack a balanced strategic view if they are focused only on one issue and look at it from one – often a Western – perspective. Let me give you an example. Several years ago I spoke with human rights advocates interested in China. They really had a somewhat fundamentalist Eurocentric perspective on China and they did not know anything about the rising Chinese civil society. Nevertheless, when I told them some concrete civil society stories they were eager to hear about it. Besides, as can be learnt from Charles Tilly, civil society movements sometimes can express exclusive group-centric views and loyalties, e. g. an assertive nationalism, instead of developing balanced and broader views embracing an open identity, mixing national and cosmopolitan beliefs. In such a setting nationalist citizen movements tend to polarise by expressing their special national group-centered, exclusive views, discriminating other ethnic and national groups, instead of building international bridges. Some manifestations of Chinese nationalism during the last decade in its aggressive form, which is not conducive to international dialogue and cooperation, were a popular and not primarily an elitist phenomenon. Therefore Chinese civil society and citizen movements – as everywhere – have to choose between aggressive nationalism or to continue opening up by international exchange, cooperation and dialogue.

A last challenge relates to the way the Chinese government will position itself towards EU–China citizen diplomacy in the future. The credibility of citizen diplomacy presupposes that the states involved loosen their control. States can promote citizen diplomacy and build state–society alliances. But if they try to control citizen diplomacy activities in an authoritarian way the credibility of these are questioned and finally damaged. This doubt is shared by many European mainstream NGOs towards China which probably explains a large share of their low level of engagement. For several reasons I am rather optimistic regarding the mid-term perspectives, though there might be occasional frictions. In my view the broad picture will be that of smooth and expanding civil society cooperation. Why? First, the history of EU–China civil society cooperation has proven that the Chinese government in principle is open and interested in developing this kind of cooperation. Second, the new era of reform after the leadership change is defined by Li Keqiang as an era of innovation, including social innovation and a rebalancing move towards greater autonomy of society in its relation with the state. The facilitation of the registration of social service NGOs is a first step on this reform trajectory. The Western media and public have underrated the learning and reform capacities of the Chinese state both in 1978 and 1990 because they were tilted towards a linear interpretation of Chinese development.

In both cases they have been surprised and did not anticipate the reform paths. Maybe we have to learn that lesson not to extrapolate linear trends of Chinese development and to develop a precise understanding of possible alternative Chinese development scenarios. Very knowledgeable energy policy experts did not anticipate that China would enter the era of decentralized solar power so soon, as it did in September. They simply supposed that the institutional model of the solar industry during the last decade because of an in-built institutional logic, which was state- driven, export-oriented and centralized, would continue. Besides, the new era is defined by the new leadership as transition towards a sustainable development model based on innovation. Both, on the national and international level this strategic view implies social innovation, horizontal social learning and co-learning of state, science, economy and society. Innovation is facilitated by a high density and diverse multiplicity of innovative ideas, often developed bottom-up via horizontal debate and lateral learning. Last not least sustainability innovations cannot be implemented without public participation and public supervision. In terms of promotion of sustainable development Europe now is the natural strategic partner of China. During the first 30 years of the reform era this role was played by the Asian tiger economies and in particular the Chinese diaspora which no longer is the main agent to mobilize the know-how and the resources for the era of sustainability.

In terms of sustainability innovation incentives and commitment, advantages of scale intermsofmarketandresources, policyinnovationandlearningcapabilities,etc. China is an appropriate partner of the EU. To inhibit EU–China civil society cooperation by authoritarian control would China cut off from the international professional and civil society networks needed for the new era of sustainable and innovative economic, social and environmental development. To co-develop sustainability capacities and to co-grow and co-reap the fruits of mature sustainability technologies, culture and social practices will only be possible in the framework of an expanding EU–China partnership model including public participation and citizen diplomacy. The European partners should be aware of these potentials and focus their cooperation on viable sustainability cooperation and within this strategic focus position themselves as constructive, demand- and needs-oriented, dialogical and flexible partners. I hope that European and Chinese citizen diplomacy will be able to combine such a vision with pragmatism and realism and to practice the art of the possible.



  1. Dr Andreas Fulda is an academic practitioner with an interest in social change, organisational development and documentary filmmaking. During the past ten years Dr Fulda has helped design and implement three major capacity building initiatives for Chinese CSOs: the Participatory Urban Governance Programme for Migrant Integration (2006-07), the Social Policy Advocacy Coalition for Healthy and Sustainable Communities (2009-11) and the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue Programme on Participatory Public Policy (2011-14). Dr Fulda is also the editor of the book Civil Society Contributions to Policy Innovation in the PR China (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2015). Contact:; 

Interview conducted by Dr Andreas Fulda

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