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In China, a European executive becomes an increasingly rare critical voice

World Oct 08, 2022 12:15AM ET
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By Eduardo Baptista

BEIJING (Reuters) - As China clamps down on dissent and the space for engagement with authorities or airing of critical views shrinks, German executive Joerg Wuttke has become increasingly conspicuous for his outspokenness.

A four-decade China resident, Wuttke has been especially vocal this year as president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China in calling out Beijing over the mounting economic toll of a zero-COVID policy that has caused frequent lockdowns and all but shut the country's borders.

A chamber report last month warned zero-COVID showed "ideology is trumping the economy" - criticism that was especially noteworthy in the run-up to this month's congress of China's ruling Communist Party, where Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third leadership term.

"In a way I have never had to use this kind of language, because there was not a necessity for it," said Wuttke, 63, who is an executive at German chemicals giant BASF.

"But now this kind of echo chamber about 'we are such a success, the West goes down, the East is rising' actually makes me speak up louder to wake them up and say 'guys, we are not on a good track here'," he told Reuters.

Wuttke said he mixes loud praise for policies the European chamber supports, such as China's commitment to carbon neutrality, with pointed criticism and constant outreach to reform-minded officials.

"(Wuttke) is never afraid to say publicly what's on his mind. That's incredibly rare in China," Peking University economics professor Michael Pettis wrote on Twitter after the EU Chamber report was published.

Growing up in the southwest German countryside in the 1960s, Wuttke said he was first drawn to China by dinner table arguments between his father, an avid reader of ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, and his brother, a devoted Maoist at the time.

After spending the early 1980s as a student in China and Taiwan, he joined Swiss engineering and technology company ABB's Beijing office in 1988.

Wuttke has made his case about the business damage caused by zero-COVID in meetings this year with officials including Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, who is seen as a potential Li successor.

Wuttke said reformers like Li, who will step down in March, have been sidelined while ideology prevents pragmatic officials from easing COVID restrictions and making market-oriented reforms.

"I don't do lobbying for the sake of sounding smart or making the chamber look good, it is really about how can I help reformers make an argument within the system?" he said.

"Sometimes in the old days, someone (working for) these vice-ministers would call me up and say would you please speak up on that topic," he said, adding his access to top officials had been severely curtailed since COVID.

    "The engagement is very staged, and hence less productive in exchanging ideas and being brutally honest about what the issues are," he said.

Wutkke says he catches flak both for being too critical and too pro-China, such as when he spoke out against calls to boycott this year's Beijing Winter Olympics over human rights, and hopes frank discussions between foreign business community leaders and the Chinese government could become normalised.

Factual criticism over issues including the security crackdown in the western region of Xinjiang and Beijing's non-involvement in the Ukraine conflict is necessary to help China reach its full potential, he said.

"I dare to say so, because that's the way it is and it has an impact on our business and I don't want our members moving elsewhere because we didn't mention the problem to the Chinese leadership."

In China, a European executive becomes an increasingly rare critical voice

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