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Can China be a new strategic partner for Poland?

Published on February 25, 2011 by: in: Economy

In the world where the West becomes weaker and the East more powerful, Warsaw has to look for new allies. Can the world so different as Poland and China find a common language?

I remember very well the day when I ‘discovered’ new, unknown China. It was September 1999. I was wandering through Liulichang, district full of antique shops, not far from the Tiananmen square. Determined to try out my knowledge of language I came into some old bookstore. Stammering the titles, full of complicated strange signs I was reaching the conclusion that there is a long way in front of me. And then I saw four easy Chinese numbers ‘1984’.

It was famous Orwell’s dystopia!

The book which was banned in Poland and in the Soviet Union until the year 1989 was there on the Chinese shelf, even though in June of the same year Communists in Beijing made it clear that they will mercilessly crush any attempt at challenging their power. Amazed by my discovery I started to thumb it thinking ‘how much do we really know in Poland about contemporary China?’.

Poland, Chinese gate to Europe

Since then I was observing how China is being ‘discovered’ by new circles of Polish society. Negative image of this country starts gradually losing its supporters. Less and less people want to see China as solely merciless regime which sends tanks against students.

There is a growing acceptance for the vision of a new superpower, which by its dynamic and relatively peaceful development questions Fukuyama’s thesis about ‘the end of the history’ and Huntington’s idea of ‘clash of civilizations’. This is a superpower, which cannot be underestimated and with which business can be done, because this is exactly what Germans, French and Americans do. Polish businessmen dream about conquering populous market but for now on – similarly to their counterparts from Europe and the United States – they benefit more from importing Chinese goods.

The value of Polish import from China has been systematically increasing. In the year 2008 it reached 11,5 billion euro while the value of our export to China – only 0,9 billion euro. Obviously the United States or Western Europe have the same problem, but it seems that it is more widely discussed there.

In Poland the debate is full of extremes. A few years ago Marek Jurek in the parliamentary commission for foreign affairs warned that Poland through trade ‘supports Chinese Communism’. On the other hand it can be argued that in Poland there is a powerful lobby around import from China. Because how else it can be explained that while Poland is flooded with goods made in China our Ministry of Economy pays importers to go for the fairs in Canton?

Recently our economic relations with China entered a new level: we start to benefit from the Chinese capital. In the year 2008 the value of Chinese investments in Poland reached 200 million dollars, in the middle of this year – already twice this amount. It is not much comparing to investments from Germany or Holland (1,6 million dollars each) but the dynamics of the increase is impressive. This is why the deputy Minister of Economy Rafał Baniak said at the end of June: Poland can become for China a gate to Europe, to the European Union.

Industries in which the Chinese can invest in Poland include automative industry, electronics, aviation, biotechnology, IT and telecommunication. Public company PKP Cargo together with public company China CNR Corp. is already organizing in China production of carriages which are supposed to be used on Polish as well as European train tracks.

Not long after the conference of Minister Baniak there was information that Chinese company Chery can ‘save’ – meaning take over by controlled purchase of the shares – company FSO in Żerań, the icon of Polish automative industry. China sets its heart on other symbols of Polish economy. The company LiuGong, which already controls Waryński Trade, wants to buy shares in the Ironworks Stalowa Wola, which is a part of pre-war Central Industrial Region. Directorate of Chinese port from Ningbo wants to build a logistics centre in the port of Gdańsk.

The symbol of Chinese presence in Poland can be found elsewhere however – in the most visible industry: construction. The fact that company COVEC won the tender for building two sections of highway A2 from Warsaw to Łódź is considered to be a key symbol of Polish-Chinese cooperation and the first such case in the whole European Union. The Chinese lowered the price of the investment by 40% explaining that they do not have to take expensive credits. Meanwhile the companies from the Union – especially from Germany – hold a grudge against Polish authorities and made a complaint. They point out that the low price offered by COVEC is supported by the Communist authorities. Polish officials just shrug their shoulders. Because even if the financial aid of the Chinese state is a fact it means – paraphrasing words of Marek Jurek – that Communist China helps building roads for Polish drivers.

To fix the relations because ‘what China is going to do with us’?

In the face of these dynamic changes there appear suggestions which a few years ago would have been in the sphere of a political fiction, namely development of economic relations should be widened into the sphere of foreign affairs.

Such a suggestion was published in ‘Rzeczpospolita’ by professor Antoni Dudek, political scientist and historian from the Jagiellonian University and advisor of the president of Institute of National Remembrance. In the article ‘Chińczyków trzymajmy się mocno’ (‘Let’s stick to the Chinese strongly’) published on 3.10.2009, which was a reaction to the US giving up the idea of building anti-missile shield in Poland, professor Dudek suggested: ‘If the Americans have more important issues to deal with than Poland, we should consider possibilities of deepening the relations with the new global superpower, namely China’.

Author presented two main arguments. First, China is prone to build relations with Poland by investing in our country into infrastructure and production for the Union’s markets. In the Western countries such an ‘enter the dragon’ would not make any sense: infrastructure in a shape of roads or railways were built there a long time ago and the costs of work are still higher than in the East.

Second reason for a potential alliance could be Russia. Professor Dudek assumes that China would oppose its closer relations with the European Union so Poland comes to its aid.

Professor Dudek’s thesis was critically developed in the Cracow’s magazine ‘Arcana’ by Radosław Pyffel, the founder of the Centre of Studies Poland-Asia and author of the reports from China, published in ‘Najwyższy Czas!’ (‘High Time!’). While Dudek presents China as an alternative to the US, Pyffel suggests that Poland basically does not have a choice anymore. In the article ‘Polska strategicznym partnerem Chin?’ (‘Poland as a strategic partner for China?’, published in ‘Arcana’, issue 94, July/September 2010) we read: “If the march of China towards global power continues, their influences will sooner or later reach also this part of the globe. Because of that the question what to do with China should be changed into: what will China (then) do with us?’.

Pyffel underlines the disappointment with the US, judging that Polish involvement on the American side in Iraq and Afghanistan is ‘rather contemporary Somosierra and Haiti’. With conciliatory gestures of Obama towards Moscow, Poland is losing its power as a bulwark and ‘Prometheus of democracy’ in the East which was a dream of late Lech Kaczyński.

What is more, existing for a few years Chinese-American rapprochement can soon come to an end, in a painful way. Both giants already compete for the influences and resources in the Middle Asia, Moscow is additionally concerned with the growing presence of China in the Siberian Far East.

Economic aspects are also important. As Pyffel writes ‘Poland seems to be attractive as Chinese bridgehead and a gate to Europe’ and it is already ‘becoming a centre for Asian wholesale trade in the Eastern Europe’.

These arguments fade though against Polish political elites’ reluctance characterized by emotions towards China. Author provides fresh arguments. At the summit of ASEM in Beijing in the year 2008 Poland, as one of six countries, was selected for talks with the Chinese leaders. At the same time members of European Parliament voted for granting the Sacharow Award to a dissident Hu Jia, imprisoned before the Olympic Games. In Warsaw the members of city council from the Civic Platform supported the idea of calling one of the crossroads the ‘roundabout of Free Tibet’ (the idea was given up this year after receiving the negative opinion from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Similarly, Pyffel judges negatively the totality of Polish policy towards China after the year 1989. In his opinion it was shaped by emotions and stereotypes. Immersing ourselves in the reluctance towards Communism we missed the emergence of the superpower. This is why he calls: ‘Let’s try to fix what was destroyed in the last two decades’.

Chinese challenge

Pyffel is right saying that Polish elites – with very few exceptions – do not know well the Far East. This problem has lasted for a long time and results from, among others, the fact that Poland has never been a colonial power. Very short period of close relations between Poland and China in the 50s improved the situation for a while, but after the Chinese-Soviet split the Polish authorities had to – more or less – realize the guidelines of Moscow and treat China critically, if not in a hostile way.

For a bigger scale the Polish started to travel to China no sooner than at the end of the 90s but because of the massacre in Beijing they still looked at China suspiciously. Our new allies, the Americans, approached China already in the 70s in order to weaken the Cold War enemy – the USSR. Nixon’s visit behind the Great Wall was a blow for the Soviet policy of isolation applied to China and in a way it contributed to the fall of the Soviet country.

At the end of famous ‘God’s playground’ from 1981 Norman Davies reminds that one of the authors of American pragmatism when it comes to China was Zbigniew Brzeziński and that it can be ‘put down – at least partially – to his Polish upbringing.’

Professor Dudek and Pyffel underline that the role of China is growing which should find its reflection in the Polish foreign policy. But can such rapprochement be made without deep knowledge about our potential partner? This is why it is the best idea to start from the Decalogue ‘What China Is and Is Not’ presented in the book ‘Geostrategic Traid. Living with China, Europe and Russia’ (2001) by Zbigniew Brzeziński. It is written from the American perspective but – as the American ally – we can accept similar optics.

1. China is neither an enemy nor a strategic partner of the US, although it is hostile towards what it perceives to be an American ‘hegemony’.

2. China is not going to become a global power, although it is a regional power, capable of ensuring its interests.

3. China does not constitute a direct threat to the US.

4. China does not constitute a global ideological challenge for the US.

5. In its region China is not a destabilizing force and on the international stage it behaves relatively responsibly.

6. In the political sphere China is neither totalitarian nor democratic but is an oligarchic- bureaucratic dictatorship.

7. In places such as Tibet and Xinjiang China does not fulfill the universal standards of human rights and tolerance towards the minorities.

8. In an economic sphere China is developing in the desired direction.

9. China will not avoid serious internal political tensions as commercial Communism is an oxymoron.

10. China does not have clear vision of either its political evolution or its international role.

After this enumeration it is clear that present relations between Poland and China – or wider: the West and China, are a combination of complex political and economic tendencies.

To sum up, for the West and for Poland China is a difficult partner. Partnership created in hope for stopping world-wide march of the Communism. Then it was widened in hope for economic benefits and stimulating – through the economic development – positive changes in China. As the liberal doctrines claim, the development of the welfare has to cause political claims.

Indeed: to some extent Western investments, which helped to develop Chinese economy at the end of the 90s, cause that China is still “evolving in the positive direction’.

No mistake can be made though. It was this positive from the Western perspective direction which transformed totalitarian autarky from the times of Mao Zedong into today’s ‘oligarchic- bureaucratic dictatorship’, the definition of which still causes a confusion in terms of terminology in the West, embodied for example by constant repetition of the question ‘is China a Communist country?’.

Even though Chinese state gave up the control over many spheres of life of its citizens (this is why Brzeziński does not want to use the word ‘totalitarian’), in case of a political sphere it still uses ‘Communist’ praxiology. For this reason the relations between Poland and China will never reach the level of mutual understanding and trust that Poland has with South Korea or Japan. In such a situation can we talk about strategic partnership at all?

A catalogue of problems

Not to be groundless, I decided to present outline of the most important problems influencing mutual relations. In reference to the articles of professor Dudek and Radosław Pyffel I would like the discussion to continue. I hope that the division below will make it easier.

Defensive alliance against Russia. There are no rational reasons to believe that China would stand on Polish side in case of our potential conflict with Russia. Some come to such a conclusion on the basis of China’s stand in the year 1956 when the president of a Permanent Committee in the Chinese ‘parliament’ Liu Shaqoi dissuaded Nikita Khrushchev, concerned by Władysław Gomułka’s coming to power, from the plans of the armed intervention in the People’s Republic of Poland. This position did not come however from a particular affection for Poland but from a wider calculation. The fact that half a century ago Polish issue came in Moscow against new Chinese political assertivness, was a sheer coincidence.

What is more, Beijing is linked with Moscow now by ‘antiterrorist’ alliance within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. If China ever attacked Russia, it would be only in its own best interest. And Poland – let’s drop any illussions – does not have any impact on defining this best interest.

Intelligence issues. French writer Roger Faligot in the book ‘Les services secrets chinois, de Mao aux JO’ (‘The Chinese Secret Service, from Mao to the Olympic Games’) reminds: ‘secret service is not only, as it is in democratic countries, an organ which acquires information, with limited influence and area of operation. It is a basic pillar of power, next to the army and the only party’. In Poland the problem of the scale of Chinese secret service’s operation unfortunately is not widely discussed. In spite of amazing economic successes, China is still a police state. Until we start looking closely at the methods which are used by the Chinese institutions we will always be in the weaker position.

Economic relations. Even though the European Union put China on the list of its strategic partners, it constantly refuses China the place on the list of the countries with free market economy. Meanwhile some of the Polish businessmen involved in trade with China repeat that there is more economic freedom in China than in Poland.

This paradox can be easily explained though. Ideas of the businessmen come from relatively law tax burdens which the enterpreneurs in China are subject to. On the other hand, social support in the People’s Republic of China is underdeveloped; there are neither common pensions nor free medical help. Trade unions are also poorly developed because Chinese state learnt its lesson from the Polish example of Solidarity and from the 90s it has made sure that there are no strong independent trade unions in this country. Numerous leaders of trade unions and dissidents, who were called ‘Chinese Wałęsa’, had to leave the country. For example Han Dongfang lives in Hongkong, Harry Wu – in the United States.

At the same time Chinese state remains an important player in the state economy. Chinese banking sector, growing stunningly in the last years, remains under the control of the state. On the other hand some of the private companies are a pure nomenclature. They are set up by so-called princes – children of important party activists. Since Jiang Zemin developed the theory of Marxism by the rule of three representations, businessmen also join the party.

Having investors from the People’s Republic of China in Poland, the government in Warsaw and the public opinion have to be aware of the fact that Chinese companies might have in mind something more than pure desire to gain profits. Among companies operating in our country there already were the ones in which French or German states had their shares. It is worth remembering however that French and German authories come from democratic elections and are subject to many forms of control. Central Chinese government is not going to undergo such democratic control.

Institutions. With growing Chinese influence, Poland should set up institutions which would provide the decision-makers – both in the government and in the private sector – with the multidimensional and up-to-date assessment of Chinese activities. It will not come as a surprise if I say that there is a lack of such institutions in Poland. Polish think-tanks – governmental or non-governmental – are in their infancy and only since recently they hire experts dealing with the issues of China and East Asia. Growing Chinese presence in whole our region should be looked at. For instance latest big Chinese investments in Belarus can serve to strenghten the authority of Alexander Lukashenko and drive his country away from the European Union.

Common European Union’s policy towards China. Centralized and disciplined China successfully benefits from European antagonisms and differences of interest. The European Union will continue to ask itself a question why in comparison to the People’s Republic of China it is a political midget even though it is a giant in the sphere of economy. Potential partnership between Poland and China would have to develop against this background. The idea of Eastern Partnership could be widened to include the Far East. By shaping Union’s policy towards China we would build up our position in the Union. Foundations for such an undertaking already exists – our good relations with Germany. Both countries coordinated its activities for example at the time of the Olympic Games in Beijing when Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk boycotted the opening ceremony.

The problem of pragmatism and axiology. Polish politicians often showed evidence of sympathy towards the Tibetian nation, which since 1950 lives under the Chinese authority. More and more often such attitude is criticized because it is not only ineffective but also spoils the relations with China, including economic ones. In my opinion however Polish attitude towards the Tibetian issue plays an important identity function and it is not a disadvantage but a virtue. Poland, which itself had to deal with the problem of sovereignty, can make out of supporting nations without state its hallmark, or to say it in a more modern way – soft power.

Government and society. Polish policy towards China should differentiate authority from the nation. Establishing strategic dialogue between Poland and ruling Chinese regime would be a sad news for the Chinese dissidents. During the meeting in the bookstore in Beijing Adam Michnik was applauded loudly when he admitted that ‘Western governments pursue shamelessly pragmatic policies towards China’.

Chinese dissidents are these few people who look beyond the current economic successes of the Communist regime and want more permanent, fair foundations for the further development. In comparison with 1,3 billion of the People’s Republic of China’s citizens it is easy to disregard these people – such a small number of them. Chinese government neutralizes them without any problem. However it has to be remembered that Polish Workers’ Defence Committee has been once similar handful of dissidents.


Quoted authors are right when they write that we are ‘sentenced’ to China. New superpower – whether we want it or not – is already present in the everyday life of every Polish citizen in shape of products made in China and many of us may find in the close future Chinese or Chinese-Polish employers.

It does not have to be a relation of subordination however. As a member of the European Union and NATO we have numerous instruments which will enable us to talk with Bejing as equals. We also have a historic wisdom of ‘crossing the Red Sea’, thanks to which we can see China in a different way – possibly deeper – than citizens of other Western countries, who do not have such experiences.

It is high time to complement this wisdom with the knowledge about contemporary China. Ryszard Kapuściński in the book ‘Travels with Herodotus’ mentioned that he has never seriously dealt with China because he came across ‘Great Wall of language’ and a face of a typical Chinese man is ‘a face which hides something which we do not know and we will never know’. Every graduate of Contemporary Chinese Studies will say however that China can be understood.

In the Orwell’s book ‘1984’ average Chinese will not recognize his country – probably this is why Beijing is not afraid of this book as the authorities in Poland and the Soviet Union have been afraid for many years. Economic freedoms solved the problems of lack of goods or the basic articles a long time ago, producing enough to share it with the whole world. Politicization of life in contemporary China is far smaller than over 30 years ago when the country started to emerge from the cultural revolution and the foundations of the economic pragmatism were built. Any tourist coming to Shanghai could mistake this city for Tokio or Hongkong. But knowing the language it can be noticed that a Chinese immigrant from Canada, praising Canadian democracy in a train falls silent when the conductor approaches.

Chinese regime has still more in common with scary Big Brother than the majority of regimes in the world. Similarly to the Orwell’s character it does not particularly like criticism (which is proved by the problems with visa that the author of this text encountered) and it enjoyes improving reality, including numerous translations of foreign books. Among censored books there is for example autobiography of Hillary Clinton. In one of the Polish books the circumstances of the death of Jerzy Popiełuszko were changed – instead ‘murder’ there was a ‘suicide’.

If we are seriously considering strategic partnership with China we should first think why the emerging world superpower is afraid of the truth about the death of a modest priest in distant Poland 26 years ago.

Translation: Martyna Bojarska

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About Konrad Godlewski

Specialist on China, journalist and commentator.

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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