In China, a European executive is becoming an increasingly rare critical voice

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BEIJING, Oct 8 (Reuters) – As China cracks down on dissent and space to engage with authorities or voice critical views shrinks, German executive Joerg Wuttke is increasingly noted for his outspokenness. talk.

A Chinese resident for four decades, Wuttke has been particularly vocal this year as president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China calling out Beijing on the growing economic toll of a zero-COVID policy that has caused frequent lockdowns. and practically closed the borders of the country.

Last month, a chamber report warned that zero-COVID showed ‘ideology trumps economics’ – a critique that was particularly notable ahead of this month’s Party congress. ruling Chinese Communist Party, where Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third term in office.

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“In a way, I never had to use that kind of language, because it wasn’t necessary,” said Wuttke, 63, who is an executive at German chemicals giant BASF.

“But now this kind of echo chamber on ‘we’re such a success, West is going down, East is going up’ actually makes me speak louder to wake them up and say ‘guys, we’re not sure. a good path here,'” he told Reuters.

Wuttke said he mixed praise for policies backed by the European chamber, such as China’s commitment to carbon neutrality, with pointed criticism and consistent outreach to reform leaders.

“(Wuttke) is never afraid to speak his mind publicly. It’s incredibly rare in China,” Peking University economics professor Michael Pettis wrote on Twitter after the report was released. of the EU Chamber.

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

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

Wuttke has argued 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 successor to Li.

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

“I’m not lobbying to look smart or to make the chamber look good, it’s really about how can I help reformers make an argument within the system?” he said.

“Sometimes in the past someone (working for) these deputy ministers would call me and tell me if you wanted to talk about this subject,” he said, adding that his access to senior officials had been severely restricted ever since. COVID.

“Engagement is highly organized, and therefore less productive in brainstorming and being brutally honest about issues,” he said.

Wutkke says he is criticized for both 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 man, and hopes that frank discussions between foreign business leaders and the Chinese government could become normalized.

Factual criticism on issues such as the security crackdown in the western Xinjiang region and Beijing’s non-involvement in the Ukraine conflict are needed to help China reach its full potential, he said.

“I dare say it because it is so and it impacts our business and I don’t want our members to move elsewhere because we haven’t mentioned the issue to the Chinese leadership.”

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Reporting by Eduardo Baptista; Editing by Tony Munroe and Lincoln Feast.

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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