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R. Pyffel: Seven asymmetries in Polish-Chinese relations – how to deal with them?

The absence of Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz during the China-Central Europe summit, which took place on the 16th December 2014 in Belgrade, turned out to be a serious dissonance in hitherto harmoniously developing Polish-Chinese relations. Obviously, her presence alone probably wouldn’t have changed much, but Poland, which is the biggest country in its region, was nominated by Beijing as the leader of 16+1 initiative and therefore it behoved Poland to turn up at the summit out of pure courtesy.

To the absence of Polish Prime Minister I dedicated a text “Five stories on why PM Kopacz didn’t go to the meeting of 15 prime ministers of Central Europe with the Chinese PM in Belgrade?”, which unexpectedly has been read on the Internet by hundreds of thousands of people. It turned out that the subject of Polish-Chinese relations can bring forth the interest of the broad public and also since the article was published exactly a month after the Belgrade summit, it proves to be a timeless topic, which is worth being disputed not only as the latest news, but as a long-term process.

As it often happens, a published article begins to live its own life and the author is being attributed to intentions or even opinions, he has never expressed.

Since the subject of Polish-Chinese relations is complicated, sensitive, but also timeless and certainly interesting for that part of the public eye, which is keen on foreign affairs, I decided to accept an invitation to publish in the pages of Obserwator Finansowy [translator’s note: Obserwatorfinansowy.pl – Polish web magazine on financial and economic topics], one of the few publications these days that has an authentic debate on crucial issues.

I would like to comment on Polish-Chinese relations not only in the form of listing problems or establishing diagnoses, because it seems like they are already commonly known, but rather by pointing recommendations and bringing attention to what is worth doing so that the relations  become better and profitable to both parties.

Obviously, I realise that what I write might be absolutely unrealistic or naive, as well as it might be just typical wishful thinking. However, the aim of this text is to inspire a discussion. Decisions on whether suggested solutions have a chance of being adopted in current reality are to be left to our politicians and policy-makers.

Secondly, success depends on both parties, presumably even more on the Chinese, which has much more potential and influencing possibilities at its disposal. However, I find it uncomfortable to give advices to our strategic partner, additionally, after all we have much more impact on actions taken by the Polish party and this is what is worth being focused on.

Seven asymmetries

Problems and challenges in relations with China are created by seven overlapping asymmetries:

  • the asymmetry of unequal competencies
  • the asymmetry of time
  • the asymmetry of prospects and priorities
  • the asymmetry of expectancies
  • the asymmetry of political culture (knowledge and style of communication)
  • the asymmetry of size
  • trade asymmetry (imbalance in import and export between the two countries)

Hence, the success would depend on how well we manage to minimise those asymmetries, or maybe even eliminate them completely. In some cases it might be easier, for example in the case of realigning expectancies or broadening the knowledge of our Chinese partner, while in others it may be largely impossible. We can never change our geographical position, nor the discrepancy in sizes.

The asymmetry of competencies

The Government in China has much more competency at its disposal than the Polish Government. In terms of accepting any plans or commitments, we can be sure that the Chinese politicians, if they really care about keeping their word, sooner or later will be able to enforce them. Meanwhile, our politicians, ministers and civil servants who are on a higher level can only inspire, persuade, represent and “create a propitious atmosphere”. All of this is still only possible as long as they manage to keep their position at the political carousel (quite often they fall out of it quickly). In other words the matter of the problem is that those who are in actual power meet those who do not really have that much of power (and additionally often need to fight to keep the rest of it). Thereby it is hard to reach some binding arrangements or long-term strategies (from the Polish side).

Of course, also in China business becomes more and more politics-independent, however those two areas broadly interpenetrate, what is acknowledged as completely natural for Asia and its political culture. Meanwhile, in Poland, politics is a priori separated from business and any relations between politicians and businesses are suspicious and shown as social pathology.

Also, the structure of business is different in both countries. In the Polish market, contrary to the Chinese market, lacks “big players”, while small to medium-sized enterprises make up 98% of it.

In regards to China, the Polish Government is not capable of working anything out for those enterprises on a political level, in the way that for example the Germans and French did it for their concerns in the 1990’s (or as Chinese politicians do it for their “big players” by travelling with them all around the world).

A Polish minister or politician (in contrary to a Chinese one) practically has no influence on Polish enterprises’ activities abroad. Those are two different worlds, which meet only when a small to medium-sized Polish entrepreneur loses his/her passport and is looking for help in a consulate.

Subsequently, how can we minimise asymmetry of competencies in which Chinese government has a straight-forward effect on its business, while Polish government only has a symbolic one?

The solution is to combine Polish business with politics more often in dealing with China.

The first success of which, was inspired from taking back unfavourable tax. It had been imposed by China on a company called Selena (Wroclaw). That tax, which was not concerning any local enterprises, practically deprived the company of competitiveness on a Chinese market. After arduous and long mediations and negotiations involving participation of the Polish party, the tax was cancelled. Even President Komorowski personally took part in those actions.

It is crucial to go on business trips on every occasion as it has always been done by the masters of Europe – Germany. However, those cannot be trips of randomly selected firms trying to find a business partner (which is bound to cause failure).

The authorities in China are reputable and they give their patronage to business. Therefore, trips should be used as a tool to build prestige of Polish companies there. Those trips should introduce the companies to the market and make them look credible in the eyes of Chinese partners. Meetings give a possibility to sign prior-written contracts and agreements, run group classes together and only after that, travel off in different directions of China to continue detailed negotiations with local partners.

It is also necessary to designate a special coordinator for relations with China (as it was done in Hungary). They should have a powerful political position and broad competencies, which would allow them to plan all-encompassing policy towards China and bind actions of respective ministries with business.

The asymmetry of time

In China everything is planned with a perspective of a decade or more, while in Poland – in the best case – until next election. We will probably find out about our possibilities for the next year… in autumn this year. Meanwhile, China already has a plan and its priorities are set until 2022. (We are yet to find what the implementation of it will look like, but as Chinese “The Art of War” says, even wrong or imperfect plan is better than not having any plan at all…)

In other words, those who think about what will happen in a couple of years meet those who think about what will happen in a couple of months (sometimes maybe even days).

So now is the right moment for wishful thinking. In order to minimise the asymmetry of time there has to be a long-term plan (certainly longer than the term of office of the Parliament), set priorities and the idea of what we want to achieve in our relations with China.

It would be necessary to positively stick to the plan regardless of political changes (obviously performing essential and forced by the developing situation tactical corrections). In terms of China or rather a XXI century – which will presumably be a century of non-European world – there should be a cross-party consensus of main political powers successively taking each other’s authority. This pattern used to exist while there was NATO-UE integration.

The asymmetry of prospects and priorities

China patiently builds its bridgeheads on every continent, at the same time trying to stay out of the public eye. Not only publicists, but also more and more frequently even politicians (lately in Latin America) talk openly about a Chinese Century and a new world. In this world domination of the West, it will be less visible or maybe it will not survive at all. Meanwhile, from a Polish perspective is Fukuyama’s “the end of history” in which world practically has not changed since the fall of the Berlin wall in the end of XX century. In 2012, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Sikorski suggested, subtly, during his visit in Beijing, that The Rise of China might only be an episode. He doubted whether we deal with a permanent change.

It is obvious that due to the geographical position our priorities are and should be with the West and EU. However, if we miss current changes in the world, our future Polish generations will struggle to make up for the wasted time. Given occurring localisation or de-globalisation of the Polish perspective, China witnesses an indifference or even patronisation and complete lack of understanding from the Polish.

To liquidate this asymmetry we would need to do an enormous amount of work and change the mindsets of Polish elites and public opinion. Perhaps it would be a change as big the one which occurred after 1989, while integrating Poland with Western Europe.

This would be a huge load of work for media, but also for many kinds of NGOs, foundations and associations. Without any cooperation with a Chinese partner we cannot do much.

The problem is that the Chinese model is mostly based  on cooperation only through official and government channels, which is strongly rooted in Chinese culture. Cooperation with civic organisations (which in the West are in many cases more influential than government administration) is considered to be “tactless”, overlooking the government, rather than only a compliment to the more official channel.

At the same time, in Poland, administration and government exist only as a reproduction of certain state of mind among Polish elites and public opinion. State of mind which makes PM Kopacz consider China-Central Europe summit as little important. As an effect she did not appear there. Until this mindset is changed, it will keep on resulting in those types of decisions and de facto impasse over bilateral relations.

Broader knowledge about China would change not only the “local” perspective (which is often a substantial obstacle) but would also reduce exaggerated and unrealistic expectations and stereotypical fears. Those aspects have been seen for example during the construction of the A2 highway when there were beliefs that the Chinese people would do that work for “a bowl of rice” or that Poland would be flooded by “cheap Chinese workforce”.

Źródło: flickr.com, David Wood

Źródło: flickr.com, David Wood

The asymmetry of expectancies

We will also not be flooded by Chinese investments, which is because China seeks new technologies, raw materials, road and rail hubs and new sales markets. They are interested in the public procurement market (building infrastructure and energetics) as well as acquiring established companies and buying global brands.

Poland in terms of that is not able to offer much. Therefore, hopes that Chinese will invest millions of dollars and build new factories and businesses (as we want it) are probably not going to fulfil.

One of the opportunities is the construction of the Silk Road 2.0 connecting Europe with China. Poland has a chance of becoming an essential element of this project. However, so far railway from Lodz to Western China is unprofitable.

The initiative 16+1 turned out to be the best illustration of a change in hopes and expectations. Poland was meant to become an informal leader of the Chinese project of Central Europe. This proposal was nevertheless received as unclear and unattractive. Firstly, Polish priority remains EU. Secondly, Poland lacks ambitions to undertake leadership in its region. Thirdly, the 16 countries of central Europe consists of Albania or post Yugoslavian countries. This is all despite the fact that in the XX century, those European countries were similarly socialist and now seem to have little in common with Poland.

There is no better way to diminish the asymmetry of expectancies than to talk and improve communication (Polish Information and Foreign Investment Agency does it in a great way). For that reason, in spite of official meetings between governing bodies and high level civil servants, there should also be meetings between journalists, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs. Their first aim would be to make contacts and acquaintances, get to know each other’s realities, communicate needs and expectations and at last work on mutual projects on many aspects beneficial for both parties.

We should replicate the actions of the Chinese, which works in a long-term manner and does not waiver due to minor failures. Developing effective communication will certainly be time consuming, but if we are patient enough, it will lead to laying down effective and satisfying models for both parties.

The asymmetry of political culture and communication style

Formerly-mentioned asymmetry of expectancies combines with differences in communication style and also disparity in the cooperation concept itself. It focuses on what the cooperation should be presented as, which in other words means differences in political culture.

Chinese parties find it appropriate to send information to the world or the public eye. Those are press releases talking about “harmonious cooperation” or “friendship between the two nations that will continue” etc.

The aim of those well-sounding and very general statements is to build atmosphere of trust. Details only appear during back room meetings. They are known and worked on by policy-makers. Publicity is usually concerned as needless.

Often it might be contrary to what Polish communication style looks like. In our country, general statements (especially well-sounding ones) do not create an atmosphere of harmony and trust. It just so happens that in the opinion of the public eye, they are seen to be sometimes irritating, amusing or suspicious. Others associate them with the times of socialism and relate them to a stereotypical view of China which is still Maoist led and communist in style.

Also the rule of “staying in the shadow” or being out of the public eye does not always work in Polish reality. We live in the age when PR means everything and popularity charts (and authorities) are reliant on it.  Ruling bodies need to be constantly focused on satisfying their voters with real or made-up successes and even the tiniest of them are rated by their PR utility. Problem in relations with China is that Poles show much more interest in issues related to their doctors or coal mines, rather than in second world power. Similarly, China itself does not want to come out of the shadow and brag about its achievements. The chances of a success that can be politically discounted are therefore minor.

I would try to find the possibility of minimising this asymmetry in changes of the world reality that will enforce contacts with Asian partners.

The favourable circumstances can be seen as a threat, weakening traditional export markets (which for Poland was EU) and additionally the Ukrainian conflict. They will make it necessary to look for new sales markets.

What is more, this vision was a keynote in an expose of a new Minister of Foreign Affairs – Grzegorz Schetyna. In autumn 2014, he talked about the budgetary perspective 2014-2020 slowly coming to an end. Therefore, a new chance of a further development in Poland is finding non-European export markets.

One success can preordain and change everything (but it has not come yet). If it is a spectacular one, it will develop creativity and inspire not only entrepreneurs but also politicians. Asia is a new beginning and in this case, comparing to European markets and Russia, it is way easier to achieve here this spectacular success.

To diminish the asymmetry of different communication styles, in which PR is essential, the internal situation would need to calm down. If Polish Prime Minister (whoever will be in this post) talks to miners and doctors more often than to PMs of Japan or China, stories about developing relations with Asian world powers will not be attractive anymore. They will even face a wave of demagogic criticism (similar situation to when for example MP Rozenek made accusations on Vice PM Piechociński, who instead of staying in Silesia went on a business trip to India).

Moreover, even Chinese party understands the meaning of PR better and better (especially in the  western world). Historical China has been a master of keeping good image for thousands of years. It is now just a matter of time when (behind the borders of the Middle Kingdom) psychological barrier will disappear. It is a barrier that demands modesty and considers bragging about successes to be inappropriate.

The asymmetry of size

The obvious asymmetry in relations  between Poland and China derives from discrepancy between sizes and potentials.

In a Polish policy towards China there is a tendency to strive for “partner relations”. Due to such a big disparity, it is a very backbreaking issue. For example, in a twin towns projects it leads to choosing Chinese counterparts often several times bigger than Polish cities. Polish voivodeships are  ascribed as a counterparts to Chinese provinces, which are the size of European countries. As a result of 1:1 policy partners chosen in this way completely do not fit. Admittedly, Warsaw is a capita city, but it is more of a local centre or semi-sized Chinese city. At the same time, Beijing has the population of a couple of million people. It is a global metropolis with several metro lines and completely different problems in comparison to Poland.

1:1 policy (which ignores or does not see disproportion) leads to so called holiday diplomacy. During those tours, representatives of Polish cities and voivodeships travel to China to realise that there is very little common ground with a several times bigger partners.

Other tendency (which I am also not a huge fun of) are attempts to overcome this discrepancy of potentials by cooperating in groups such as The Visegrad Group (V4) and European Union.

It is obviously possible to organise collaborative exposition or conference among V4. However, those countries are often each other’s rivals (for example in cases of acquiring Chinese investments), so this cooperation can only be tactical.

European Union obviously is a powerful structure and its support in relations with China can be helpful. Unfortunately, it does not have a homogeneous foreign policy (even toward China). Therefore, European Union will not help us out in this case.

Since, neither 1:1 perspective nor grouping into bigger structures is utterly effective, to fulfil the potential existing in Polish-Chinese relations we must accept that aspiration for partner relations (1:1 rule) with a country of a size of Europe makes little sense. We should search for a formula that would realistically take into consideration disproportion of potentials, instead of trying not to see it or equalising it.

Two biggest aims of Poland in its relations with China are opening Chinese market for Polish food products and keeping railway connection (which could put Poland in a position of a crucial element of the Silk Road 2.0 connecting Europe with western China). Given that, maybe it would be essential to focus on one of the western provinces? Maybe we should give Sichuan a special priority and first organise Poland promoting festivals, cultural programmes, film festivals, symposia and seminars right there? As well as we should search there for partners, not only for Lodz region (that has a signed agreement with that province populated by a few millions people), but for the entire Poland.

Obviously, placing our priority on western China would not mean neglecting actions in richer and more developed eastern China. However, concentrating small potential that Poland has at its disposal on one province, may support Poland’s biggest logistic project (so far unprofitable). It can also help achieve good position in Western China, which is not as popular as a rich shore.

Asymmetry of export and import

The best known asymmetry in Polish-Chinese relations is a discrepancy of trade, which is valuated from more or less 1 to 10 (2 billion $ of Polish export and 22 billion $ of import from China).

This asymmetry should start disappearing with enrichment of Chinese society, revaluation of yuan and going away from pro-export economy in China. All of those processes are already taking place. As a result of it, Chinese people will start buying more things abroad. The only problem is to find suitable products. Currently, around 2bln $ of Polish export consists of raw materials (mostly copper).

Obviously, in the past government has tried many times to diminish the trade deficit. However, China (reasonably from their point of view) was proving not to be able to diminish it on their own and suggesting that any action should be taken from Polish side. Poland should also offer products that would appear as more attractive to a Chinese customer.

However, signing strategic partnership with China in 2011 could be an additional argument for opening a broader market for some Polish products. In other words, we would need Chinese courtesy and later on, listing groups of products for the sales of which Poland would receive a special status.

The problem is that at least several dozen countries in the world think about similar actions. They take steps in economic diplomacy to gain preferential status and broader access to the Chinese market, even only in few branches of industry.

Although, this proposal is a bit unrealistic, it would be worth mapping out (with co-participation of Polish and Chinese branch centres) products China could import from Poland and consider them to be preferential.

It would also be valuable to create a list of potential competitive niche. (In the enormous Chinese market even niche of niches can be comparable in size to a whole Polish market of some popular products).


The absence of PM Kopacz in the China-Central Europe summit do not put an end to future Polish-Chinese relations (although, it can be interpreted as showing ostentatious lack of interest).

Seven asymmetries described in this article surely would not have been diminished or eliminated if the Prime Minister had been present in Belgrade. They still remain the biggest challenges of Polish-Chinese relations in the nearest decade. Not only the form of Polish – China relations, but (however pompous it sounds) future of Poland in XXI century, depends on how well we deal with those challenges.

The article of a similar content was published on the web pages of obserwatorfinansowy.pl.

R. Pyffel: Seven asymmetries in Polish-Chinese relations – how to deal with them? Reviewed by on 8 kwietnia 2015 .

The absence of Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz during the China-Central Europe summit, which took place on the 16th December 2014 in Belgrade, turned out to be a serious dissonance in hitherto harmoniously developing Polish-Chinese relations. Obviously, her presence alone probably wouldn’t have changed much, but Poland, which is the biggest country in its region, was




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