Interview with an Expert: the too-friendly Maikefeng*)

The too-friendly Maikefeng

The too-friendly Maikefeng

Wolfgang Kubin, a sinologist of Bonn university, a professor, translator and a lyricist, was interviewed by German weekly Die Zeit, apparently this week.  The interview was published on Tuesday. Asked if the current German show at the National Museum of China in Beijing – The Art of Enlightenment – should have been scheduled in China at all by the Germans, given the case of Ai Weiwei, Kubin replied that this wasn’t the age of the Cold War:

“we need to work with each other. We must keep holding conversations, no matter if we like our counterparts and arguments, or if we don’t. Every severance of talks will only lead to even bigger, unnecessary complications. Relations between Germany and China are traditionally very good, and we should make the most of them (Die Beziehungen zwischen Deutschland und China sind sehr gut, das ist ein Pfund, mit dem man wuchern kann).

Kubin suggested that Chinese state security were “a state within the state”, which “does what it wants to do”, and which “can’t be controlled”. Ai Weiwei’s arrest had in fact been a loss of face [apparently a loss of face inflicted on the CCP leadership by the state security, in Kubin’s view – JR]  – and “completely unnecessary. One could have solved things differently. If he really evaded taxation, one needs to question him, but one must not make him disappear.”

Die Zeit: For 2012, China plans a China Cultural Year  in Germany. Should we allow for that, given the public opinion which is taking shape in China? (Für 2012 plant China ein Kulturjahr in Deutschland. Sollen wir das zulassen, gerade in Anbetracht der öffentlichen Meinung, die sich derzeit in China bildet?)

Kubin: After all, it isn’t as if political censorship existed only in China – it exists over here, too. It’s just that we don’t talk about it, or it is presented in a different way. The ways of thinking in terms of black-and-white must end. ( Es ist ja nicht so, als gäbe es die politische Zensur nur in China – die gibt es bei uns ja auch so. Nur reden wir nicht darüber oder sie wird anders verpackt. Das Schwarz-Weiß-Denken, das hier in der Presse und auch in Diskussionen immer mehr um sich greift, muss ein Ende haben.)

The Die Zeit reporter didn’t follow up here, which is something I don’t understand. Whichever way you look at it, this doesn’t make the paper look good. If Kubin had explained in more detail as to how censorship exists in Germany, it would help to understand that China isn’t “that bad” after all, and it would address a genuine grievance in Germany. It would be useful to two ends at least. And if he had been unable to offer a convincing explanation, readers would have learned something, too. Did Die Zeit  know which kind of censorship Kubin was referring to, and therefore avoided the topic? Or didn’t they dig deeper out of respect for the professor? Either way – they avoided an issue which many readers would have liked to have answered, as the commenter thread following the article shows. Some commenters speculate, but noone claims to know the answer.

When it comes to China itself, rather than to German views on it, the core of Kubin’s message seems to be one about fear, envy, and loyalty.

Die Zeit: Is it for fear that the intellectuals don’t speak out, or doesn’t it matter to them?

Kubin: I know what you would like to hear: for fear. But the matter is more complex. There is a certain negligence, a certain disinterest, a lack of preparedness to get involved when it comes to people who aren’t doing that fine. Chinese history and cultural history isn’t taken into consideration sufficiently. There is hardly any Chinese intellectual, artist, writer who would say something positive about a Chinese colleague. There is a long tradition of that.


Die Zeit: All the same, this Chinese intelligentsia lives under an authoritarian regime.

Kubin: There aren’t only Chinese people in China, but in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and America, too. Why is there no press which would be similar to ours? Why no manifestations of protest? Nobody would get punished there. The reason is simple: because Chinese people, basically, identify themselves with the state, with the nation – and especially when they draw material benefits from that. The other side, intellectual liberties, don’t seem to matter as much there, as they do here. Apparently, people are willing to make sacrifices. That is hardly understandable for us. But it seems to be a fact which is rarely reflected upon here.

Kubin doesn’t deny that fear may play a role in many Chinese intellectuals’ behavior – see the second line of his first answer within the above quote -, but he is leaving fear as a factor completely out in his actual answer. If people don’t protest in Hong Kong, or Taiwan, or America, why then should the Chinese government use repressive tools at all? Is he unfamiliar with the Taiwanese press? Again, no follow-up questions from the interviewer.

While Kubin agrees that Ai Weiwei’s detention is illegal, he questions the German mainstream press, too:

How can we be sure that Ai hasn’t evaded taxation? In Germany, it is blindly believed that the accusations brought forward by the state must be 100 per cent wrong, and only constitute a pretense for his arrest.

And how will we ever know? Does Kubin expect that, once specifically accused, Ai can still expect an acquittal when in court, even if not guilty? Again – no follow-up question by Die Zeit.

A sinologist who defends the way China is ruled is no surprise to me – although there are sinologists who are much more critical than Kubin. But I’d expect Die Zeit to be more professional when asking questions – or at least to explain as to why the interview had been so meek.

After all, maybe Kubin simply filled in a questionnaire, and faxed it back to the paper’s central editorial department. But that would be something  readers need to know, to understand the interview’s background.


*) What’s a maikefeng? Look it up here.

» Der Übersetzer “in Klammern”, Deutsch-Chinesisches Kulturnetz, April/September 2009
» Hermit: Kinakännaren, November 3, 2009

Updates / Notes
I added Deutsche Welle as a tag, as it has become a topic within the commenting thread. On another note, while I highlight changes to the wording of an already published post, I have a habit of changing tags or categories without extra notice. Links may change, too, if old links become dead links.

13 Responses to “Interview with an Expert: the too-friendly Maikefeng*)”

  1. Nice discussion. Your blog is always very thoughtful.
    Kubin has a certain reputation in China too, doesn’t he, for saying controversial things about modern Chinese literature? Maybe he just likes this kind of “tell you what you don’t want to hear” rhetoric.


  2. That may be part of his motivation – and obviously, when he feels that the German debate is one-sided, he may decide that there is no need to repeat what has been said many times (or too many times, in his view), before.

    But I think that Kubin views China’s role in the globalizing world as unconditionally benign, and that this is his main motivation during the interview, too. I linked to a German-language article under this post’s “Related” headline – Der Übersetzer “in Klammern”, and criticizing Wolf Totem by Jian Rong (and judges its translation into English), saying that the novel mirrors social darwinism of the Jack London kind – “an ideology which appears to be compeltely outdated in a globalizing world which emphasizes cooperation, not the survival of the strongest” (eine Ideologie, die in einer globalisierten Welt, die Zusammenarbeit und nicht das Überleben des Stärkeren betont, völlig veraltet erscheint). I don’t really believe that Kubin is familiar with the “lower” Chinese middle class and of how they view competition. I guess that he’s a poet in the first place.

    The global economy may be about “mutual” or “multilateral benefit” – but to seek ones own benefit will be the task of each individual participant (without much consideration of the counterparts’ interests – and rules such as those by the WTO are “bound to be bent”.

    Thanks for commenting, and feel free to add more.


  3. Thanks for the link JR. Just couldn’t get into Wolf Toten. Struck me as typical backpackers reading fodder.

    More shark toten drawings above I notice. Smile


  4. Actually, Kubin provides an interesting insight into how the translation of Wolf Totem was handled by its translator into English – one third of the Chinese content was simply left out, as it contained pre-fascist ideology – and even a better book than the Chinese original, if not a creation in its own right, rather than a translation (see page 9 of this paper. So… count yourself lucky that you didn’t have to read a genuine translation, KT – or maybe that could have made it a more fascinating read? 😉

    This paper by Kubin is not the English equivalent of the German page I linked to before, but it does address some of the same problems.

    Wolf Totem itself, in Chinese, Kubin said here, was a bad copy of Jack London, representing – see my earlier comment – social darwinism.
    What is translation, may in fact be, in Kubin’s view, art or creation in its own right, without doing injustice to the original.

    Maybe I’m too philistine to follow his view. I’m not Susan Sontag, who wouldn’t even want to interpret a piece of art, but translating even the whole thing, rather than passage by passage, or sentence by sentence, looks inaccurate to me. Anyway, to do Kubin’s view justice, you’ll best read his paper.

    Possibly interesting in the context of his ZEIT interview:

    In Qing-China (1644-1911) a Chinese translator was not expected really to translate what was said or written. His task was quite different; he had to mediate between the Chinese and the foreigners. Anything that could embarrass either side was not to be transferred into Portuguese or Pidgin English, into Cantonese or Mandarin! Paul A. Van Dike, professor of history at the University of Macau, comments upon this strange procedure of the 18th century that took place in Canton:9

    ‘Linguists were not supposed to translate anything that would offend or cause problems so pleading or feigning ignorance in the language was a way to prevent that from happening.’
    [..] Their primary task was to mediate, so being able to effectively negotiate, persuade and pacify were skills more important to the linguists’ careers than being able to interpret foreigners’ actions correctly or translate their intentions accurately.
    We can of course imagine how unsatisfied foreigners at the China coast must have been with their Chinese interpret, especially when they wanted to raise protest against the Chinese way of rather hinder than allow trade. Whoever is unfamiliar with the situation of those times might ask why the Europeans did not bring their own interpreter. One has to know that in the 18th century the Chinese people was not allowed to teach foreigners the Chinese language, everyone could be punished by death. Without Chinese teachers it was impossible to learn Chinese for the European majority and only the minority of Jesuits were able to find a way, but they rarely played the role of translators for foreign merchants. <a href=""(page 6/7 of the paper.)


  5. This man appears to b making his pitch for a visa.


  6. You don’t understaaaand China!


  7. I completely agree with the problem of not making clear Kubins view on censorship in democratic societies in the interview.

    What an Interview. Censorship in Germany? Hao ba. If you say so….

    I guess Kubin was referring the fact that it is hard or even getting harder in Germany to voice an opinion if one is in the minority. Misquoting Walter Benjamin I would call the problem “Opinion in the age of digital reproduction”. Very often the final sentence is pronounced and confirmed over and over in the media without knowing full facts.

    The case of Zhang Danhong at DW and the following debate that seems to culminate in the recent events ( demonstrate the problems in Germany of accepting dissent. Maybe I am wrong but it seems that the “If-they-are-not-with-us-they-are-against-us-standpoint” gets more and more popular.

    Anyway. The ability to live with dissent is the crucial question for the dialogue between Germany and China and the quoted interview missed the chance to talk about it. Poor-spirited Journalism


  8. Once in a while, it takes an ability to handle media, too, to make ones point. As far as I can see, in the more recent Deutsche Welle controversy, the authors of the open letter have failed to make such a point. One of them mainly had her attorney speak for her, when the press had questions (understandable as long as a court case continues, but then, the media can only report what they are being told, from a civil – not public – courtcase. If the authors of the open letter believe that the station’s restructuring is politically motivated, the only right thing to do is to take this to the courts. The public can’t answer this question, so long as it essentially remains a case of industrial relations.

    I wrote several posts about the Deutsche Welle controversies since 2008 – the oldest ones are about Zhang Danhong. I explained there why I disagreed with Zhang, and why I was all the same skeptical about the Deutsche Welle’s approach. That said, I don’t think that censorship issues are now at the heart of the case. Points you can’t necessarily make as a Deutsche Welle journalist are ones you can make when you work for any private paper or station which isn’t publicly funded (and with a charter passed by its editors, rather than by legislators). And points you can’t necessarily make when you work for “Die Welt” are ones you can make when working for the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, for example.


  9. @JR: You are most probably right stating that there is no use in accusing the people in charge at the DW publicly via an open letter. This is a very severe accusation and only a court can decide if these accusations are true or false.

    But I disagree with your opinion that the political orientation of a media organization should be allowed to influence the content directly.

    I’ve recently had a lot of discussions with young Chinese students who don’t see too many differences between Chinese media and western media. They think that all journalists in one way or the other represent the interests of a lobby or the government. They do not believe in objective and impartial news. In their eyes media coverage is mostly politically motivated. They don’t believe in an open society.

    How could this happen? Shouldn’t they be on our side when it comes to open media?

    One of the many reason is that German media has failed in letting Chinese people speak about their country. Nearly all the young people in China I know support the government and believe that China is on the right way. But it is hard to say something like that in Germany. It is enormously difficult to speak up when you are saying something that could be interpreted as supporting the official CCP version of modern China even if it is obviously true.

    I am sure that many journalists in Germany see it as their job to inform the society. They write about what they see and they don’t care too much about what anyone wants to hear from them. And most of them are allowed to report the facts and to open up the discussion. Chinese journalists working in Germany should be allowed to do this, too.

    At the bottom of the case of Zhang Danhong was a very interesting question. The question if the right to have a place to live and something to eat (温饱) should be regarded as the most basic human right and other rights like the right for freedom of speech can be seen as secondary. I guess most Chinese people I know would argue like that. This case was a big chance for an open discussion about the question what we actually mean by human rights. We missed it.


  10. I disagree with your opinion that the political orientation of a media organization should be allowed to influence the content directly

    Neru, I think that the question if media should be “allowed” to influence the content opens a new category in the Deutsche Welle discussion on this blog. But media are owned, private and public ownership can generate influence on content, and it frequently does. It seems to me that if one wanted to do away with such influence, one would have to do away with the concept of ownership itself. Also, this kind of influence doesn’t look like a barrier to freedom of information to me, as long as the state doesn’t interfere with the concepts of the owners, and as long as different views do exist anyway, across the range of a country’s media. A liberal journalist shouldn’t work for Die Welt, or get out of there as soon as he/she can get a job with a more adequate paper. Vice versa when it comes to a rather conservative journalist.
    For a “pro-China” perspective, there’d be the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Remuneration at Die Welt might be better, though…

    The Voice of Germany or Deutsche Welle is funded with public money, and it is legislation (Deutsche-Welle-Gesetz) which defines the way it works. I’m no lawyer, and not sure if the term “public ownership” would apply here. There is no technical supervision (“Fachaufsicht”) by the state, but legal supervision (or legal oversight / “Rechtsaufsicht”) – see page 4 of this document. I understand this as procedural supervision, instead of supervision of contents (unless the question of balanced coverage or charter issues arise).
    Complaints about Zhang weren’t only about the content of the Welle’s contents – it was also that the Chinese department allegedly constituted “basically an island”, “isolated from German society”. From experience of my own, quite long ago, some DW-relatednews struck a chord with me: when I learned that Zhang had – reportedly, and I’m taking this with a pinch of salt, as this hasn’t been confirmed by the Welle itself either – had an intern ask her questions in an “interview” – and that those questions had been formulated by herself -, it gave me a certain impression that this “island” kind of accusation against the department might hold some truth. And that would indeed be a procedural, rather than a content question. Procedural issues may have arisen before, too.

    Here, the Deutsche Welle doesn’t speak out – probably because it has or had become a legal, civil-law case, between the organization and the employees in question. We both seem to agree that from here, it becomes difficult to discuss the issue, because for exactly that reason, it’s no longer a public case. However, the claimants could probably make it a public case if they wanted, but at the price of forfeiting certain claims in their capacity as employees.

    All that said – and as you’ll probably know -, I didn’t like the way the Deutsche Welle covered China-related issues prior to 2008 either. I’m kind of grateful to the dissidents who stirred shit then, because this could have given the Deutsche Welle an opportunity to professionalize, rather than to simply shift its coverage to being more China-critical.
    That opportunity was – possibly, I don’t feel fit for a final judgment about that yet -, missed by the organization. For a clue, rather than a full insight into what I believe, I wrote a post on May 31, about how the BBC handles complaints.

    quoteThis makes me wonder who investigated complaints about the Deutsche Welle’s Chinese department before Chinese dissidents and other critics – apparently all of a sudden – managed to set the agenda.
    There seems to be a procedure in place at Deutsche Welle (see para 19). But you can read comments from Germany’s political parties’ media spokespeople once in a while more frequently, than from the station itself. Maybe the Voice of Germany should take professional care of quality programming on its own. Does it? And did the critics of the Chinese department make use of the procedure? If not – why not? Did they write their open letter to Germany’s parliament after their complaints hadn’t been dealt with, or did they choose a path of maximum publicity?
    Maybe after a successful implementation of quality assurance measures, it will be a good time for Deutsche Welle to become a convincing advocate for democracy – and transparency. The station’s improvement process should be as public and transparent as its ambitious contributions to global democratization. Maybe.
    But there is no use in preaching it without living it. The best thing Deutsche Welle can do is to be a reliable source of information. All the rest is either by the way, or even useless. unquote

    This, too, however, is rather part of my – any your, I understand – personal wish-list, just as was my individual desire that the Welle should take a much more aggressive way in promoting democracy and human rights before 2008.

    Ownership does play a role in news coverage, and even if ownership is public, my wish-list is only one out of many.

    You ask how it could happen that young Chinese students who don’t see too many differences between Chinese media and western media, and that they don’t believe in an open society.
    I sometimes believe that I’m actually much more “humble” than many advocates of a more “understanding” approach to interaction with people who question the value of an open society. I don’t expect that I can change their opinions. I can only state mine, and my opinion differs from theirs – as this blog can hopefully tell.
    Zhang had a difficult time of it, and I do feel somewhat sorry for her, even without knowing the full story. She must have been under enormous pressure. But I doubt that her claim about the CCP having lifted tens of millions of Chinese people out of poverty was enough to bring her into conflict with the “Welle”. As Ulrich Wickert pointed out, quoting Freimut Duve, there was no legal way to censor her. With that kind of accusation alone, the Welle would have lost in court – and as a corporation under public law, the Welle was and will be under particular scrutiny when it comes to a court case.
    Another point: I do believe that Germans – me included – are very opinionated as a rule, and that this frequently creates an atmosphere that doesn’t look terribly inviting. But then, everyone has a right to be opinionated. I’d even miss the habit if it became absent here. It’s our culture 😉

    Once again back to my wish list. I would prefer a much more open discussion about China, and about our relationship with China. It is narrowed in two ways at least, in my view. In one way, bad news about China sell better than good news. Spine-chillers are in great demand here. This blog may make that hard to believe, but in my daily environment, I’m much more “China-friendly” (to use that stupid term, as I can’t think of another right now) than most other people I’m living and working with.
    On the other hand, we also seem to shun a public debate about the nature of China’s political system, which in my view is totalitarian. The mere fact that it isn’t Mao Zedong anymore, and that we can do business with China, is no argument to the contrary. Even if you disagree with that point of mine – it would be worth a discussion, and that discussion is absent, too. My question re “China: Authoritarian or Totalitarian” has almost constantly been among the top-five posts ever since I wrote it, more than a year ago. And not too many answers to either direction have been given to date – one of the most helpful ones – in my view – has been FOARP’s.

    I’m not in the business of converting Chinese people to democracy – if I was, this blog would be written in Chinese. However, I have no favorable opinion of China’s political system when dissidents can’t speak out as freely as the young Chinese students you’ve mentioned in your comment. As you said: Chinese journalists working in Germany should be allowed to [report the facts and to open up discussions], too.

    But hey! That’s what I’m running this blog for. I hope you’ll be back frequently, on this thread or on any other.

    I’d like to add a link to a paper about the Welle, of 2007 (I seem to understand that you speak German) – Eine Qualitative Studie zum Selbstverständnis von DW-Journalisten. It may not do much to either prove or disprove what I say, but it seems to offer a lot of academic input to our discussion anyway, and some stuff we might refer to if we continue this discussion.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: