Over the weekend, the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) and the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), both based in Berlin, jointly released a report calling on European leaders to take more concerted action to deal with China’s efforts to exert political influence in Europe. “If Europe intends to stop the momentum of Chinese influencing efforts,” the report said, “it needs to act swiftly and decisively.”
The report takes a fairly comprehensive look at Chinese influence tactics in Europe, outlining challenges in three “arenas”: 1. political and economic elites; 2. media and public opinion; and 3. civil society and academia. The report also draws parallels with “high-profile precursors in other Western liberal democracies, specifically Australia and New Zealand.”
Whatever its merits, the GPPi/MERICS report was sure to draw sharp criticism from China. The first volley came late yesterday in the Global Times, the tabloid published by the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily. The op-ed, “Misguided Academics Promote China-EU Confrontation,” argued that the GPPi/MERICS report was an unfair reflection of China’s ambitions in Europe, and that it “advocates confrontation between Chinese and EU political models.”
Over the past year, MERICS, Europe’s largest think-tank on contemporary China, has been singled out for ad hominem attacks from the Global Times, and the idea that the think-tank nurtures “misguided academics” is a principal line of attack. Just last week, in fact, an article in the Global Times credited the newspaper itself with driving a precipitous drop in “negative” coverage by MERICS by running a report back in March 2017 “on the problem of politicization of ‘China research’ at MERICS.” The piece, which suggested MERICS president Sebastian Heilmann was leaving his post in September because of “reservations on the part of the funder,” Mercator Stiftung, quoted an anonymous academic from Hamburg, Germany, to disparage MERICS research as “China research for the entertainment section.”
Anticipating further growls from the Global Times and other state media about Europe’s newly cautious attitude toward China, we offer a translation of the most recent Global Times attack on MERICS. Enjoy.
[Global Times Germany correspondent, Qing Mu (青木), Global Times reporter Zhang Beixin (张倍鑫)] — The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), which has been called Europe’s largest “China research center” recently issued a notice on its official website announcing a change of management, saying that effective September this year Sebastian Heilmann would no longer serve as president of the center. In March last year, the Global Times ran a full-page report on the problem of politicization of “China research” at MERICS (see image). After that, MERICS’ entirely one-sided voice criticizing China was somewhat moderated, and use by German media of the research results from scholars at the think tank also went down. A scholar who cooperates with MERICS told the Global Times reporter that doubts raised by China also put pressure on Mercator Stiftung, the foundation that created the think tank. A person familiar with the situation told the Global Times reporter that Heilmann’s departure likely owed to reservations on the part of the funder.
MERICS was created in November 2013 with funding from Germany’s largest private foundation, the Mercator Stiftung. This center recently issued a notice saying that Heilmann would return to Germany’s Trier University starting September 1 owing to family reasons. Within just a few years, [the notice said], Heilmann had fashioned MERICS as one of the world’s leading think tanks for China research, and the Mercator Stiftung expressed its thanks for his outstanding work. The foundation was preparing for the second round of MERICS funding (2019-2023). In the future, Heilmann would actively support the smooth leadership transition at MERICS, and would continue to maintain a close connection with MERICS.
The change in leadership at MERICS did not attract much attention in Germany’s media, but in China research circles in Germany it caused something of a stir. Berlin China specialist 莱希贝格 told the Global Times reporter that Heilmann was stepping down early, before the end of MERICS’ first five-year round [of funding], and clearly his cooperation with the Mercator Stiftung had not gone so smoothly. 莱希贝格 reckoned that MERICS’ greatest failure had been to spark questions from China, for example that it had been too political, and had lacked objectivity.
At the time of its founding in 2013, MERICS said that it hoped to “reveal different aspects of China”, and to “deepen knowledge and understanding of China in Germany and in Europe.” But the result was that it released various research articles on China that were essentially critical of China and were clearly subjective in nature.
Thanks to its reputation as Europe’s largest “China research center,” MERICS quickly gained visibility. In particular, after the center’s scholars published articles in America’s New York Times, in Germany’s Der Spiegel and other “major Western media,” MERICS became perhaps synonymous with “China research” in Europe. Germany’s Der Tagesspiegel newspaper reported previously that some traditional think tanks in Germany worried that MERICS was monopolizing “expert knowledge on China,” and that they believed it lacked historical perspective on China.
Through investigation, Global Times reporters found that MERICS does not resemble a think tank in the true sense, and it has not long-term research plan. Each week the center issues its online magazine called “China Monitor,” which 5 to 10 articles. These “academic articles” all follow hot topics about China, looking more like personal reflections, the language often provocative, tending to draw attention. This has led the organization to have a poor reputation among academics. One Chinese expert in Hamburg told this reporter angrily that these article could not be called scholarly research, that they lacked serious arguments, and that they also lacked a historical view — that some resembled “China research for the entertainment section.”
The Global Times reporter has applied for onsite interviews with this think tank on many occasions in the past, but has always been refused, the organization saying that “we refuse interviews from state media.” In March last year, the Global Times ran a full-page article called “Getting to the Bottom of Europe’s Biggest ‘China Research Center'” in which it exposed the problem of politicization in MERICS articles. People with knowledge of the situation have revealed that after the report came out, Heilmann was furious and said he wanted to seek out the Global Times reporter to argue it out, and that he even flew into a rage asking the Chinese Embassy in Germany how the article had come about.
According to an investigation by Global Times reporters, from 2013 to March 2017, around 80 percent of the articles published by MERICS were negative. After the publication of the full-page report by the Global Times, articles from the center about China that were negative with a strong sense of subjectivity were around 50 percent. The tone of its experts in media interviews was also somewhat moderated. For example, in an interview with Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) radio on April 6, MERICS scholar Sabine Mokry (莫诗彬) affirmed China’s activities in Africa, saying that China’s economic and political involvement in Africa had earned praise from locals.
According to its plan, the Mercator Stiftung should already have invested 18.4 million Euros in MERICS. Insiders reveal that the foundation is clearly unhappy with the current situation at MERICS. One person in charge at the foundation previously told the Global Times reporter that MERICS’ objective had been to advance understanding of China, not to oppose [China]. [Berlin China specialist] 莱希贝格 believes that given the current situation at MERICS, the management change is perhaps an opportunity that can make MERICS move in a more objective direction.