Fokke Obbema: Bridge China and Europe

Fokke Obbema Photo provided to Sino-US.com

Coming from the Netherlands, Fokke Obbema is a veteran journalist working with de Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper, since 1991. However, his first encounter with China did not come until 2008. That trip ignited his passion to write the book, China and the West, Hope and Fear in the Age of Asia, the English version of the original “China en Europa” published in 2013. The English version was published in 2015 and made its debut in Beijing recently.

In an email interview with Sino-US.com, he talked about how he made up his mind to write such a book about the China and Europe relationship, the basic tone of which is constructive, objective, and optimistic; and also shared some of the behind-the-scene stories of writing this book.

Fascinating dynamism

Why a Dutch journalist who had never been to China became interested in writing such a book about China-Europe relationship? Probably it is not as worthy a question to be answered in consideration of the current role that China plays in the world, as it is to find a new approach in building up trust between China and the Western countries.

Fokke’s first visit to China came in 2008 after he was appointed the head of the business section of his newspaper in 2007, and he immediately felt that this country, compared to the West, seemed to be doing so well. “The Olympics were held here, giving the country a sense of pride and optimism,” he said, “In the West, pessimism abounded, as a few weeks after the Olympics, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the western financial system was shaking on its foundation. I experienced the tremendous energy in China and was impressed by the dynamism of its people.”

“But going back home I experienced mostly a negative attitude toward China when discussing with friends and colleagues; the pessimistic discourse was that China was about to take over Europe, (and) we will live ‘in the shadow of China’s dominance’.”

It was true as books like When China Rules the World written by British academic and journalist, Martin Jacques, made it onto US President Barack Obama’s bedside table in 2009, and predictions such as “the end of the western world” was near and “China was rising” dominated the discourse in the western countries. And Fokke’s fascination, as he wrote in his book, was summed up by the question: What Europe is to do about China and what China is to do with Europe.

“Being neither a China-basher nor a panda hugger, I decided that it was time to have a more balanced and cool-headed approach; in my eyes this was needed as China’s rise is arguably the most important development of this century and I was astonished to discover that there were at the time no books specifically devoted to the relations between China and Europe. A book on these relations seemed to me necessary in view of the global problems we share like human development and climate change. In order to solve them, an open dialogue between China and the West is indispensable. ”

Manage the interviews

Reading through the book, you can see how the writer enjoyed the process of writing it! Fokke began the writing of this book in 2011 after a six-month investigation, and he was given a “sabbatical year” by his newspaper to finish this book on time in six months. During the process, he went back and forth between China and Europe and spoke with quite a number of people. 

The original manuscript was 120,000 words, which means in 26 weeks the author had to write about 4,600 words per week. But for an experienced journalist as he is, it was feasible.

In Europe he talked with Chinese experts, like George Walden, former diplomat in China during Cultural Revolution, and back in China, Fokke spoke with a wide range of local people including entrepreneurs, students, politicians, social workers, prostitutes, shopkeepers, and writers.

“I guess I’m quite organized when working and I like to have a helicopter view, so I guess in that way I was able to handle all these different interviews,” Fokke said, “and most of all, because I really enjoyed doing it.”

The think-tank people Fokke talked with were willing to talk either on or off the record; but when it comes to the ordinary people, it really depends on the person, he said.

“I have been to the Chinese countryside and there people spoke quite easily, of course with the Chinese interpreter, a charming girl,” said Fokke half-jokingly, “You get refusals of course, but not significantly more than in Europe.”

As a “relative novice” on China, Fokke felt privileged to hear these people’s views and relied on their advice to get grips with a topic so big. But with such a big subject, he was sometimes overwhelmed and also posed the huge risk of unwarranted generalization, he wrote in his book.

As the German-Chinese author Vera Yu has said, “Everybody is always trying to capture what Chinese people are like. But that’s absolutely impossible. Surely you can’t make claims about all Europeans either.”

Fokke tried to take that warning to heart, but without letting it interfere with his objective: to write a book about Chinese-European relations.

‘Time to be cured’

In the first part of Fokke’s book, the storm of the 2008 Chinese investors’ purchase of French wine chateaux gets a mention. As a journalist with over 20 years of work experience, he was not unfamiliar with the way that newspapers look for a story. “Proud French wine makers complaining about the decline of their national heritage. Record those complaints and there’s story.”

However, after hearing opposite voices on Chinese investment in France, from the mayor-winegrower whose response was exactly one that a newspaper would love, to the local vineyard workers who turned into the employee of the Chinese investors and perceived Chinese involvement as a very good thing, he decided to “suppress his professional reservation” and to “put both the gloom and doom into perspective”.

“There are too many reasons for a positive interpretation of the Chinese presence in the Bordeaux region,” he wrote in his book.

In writing the book, Fokke also had more time to reflect on what he really wanted to do: to “choose the right angle". And he also built up a knowledge system which he can still use today.

But what’s more important might be his original setting of the tone of this book.

“I wanted my book to be optimistic and constructive (which is not the aim of my normal journalistic work; it can happen occasionally, but often it focuses on problems and conflicts), as I was searching for the possibilities of a relationship of trust which I deem necessary to solve our common global problems.”


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