Döpfner is a former editor-in-chief of Die Welt, and has worked at the publishing and printing group since 1998. He became CEO in 2002.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this week, he described China as “one of the most important cultures in the world”, but said that the Chinese regime was simply “totalitarian” and “state-driven capitalism”, leading to a fundamental imbalance in relationships with other trading nations.
“That has nothing to do with our free market economies. That is something that has to be distinguished and I think in the short-term, it is always very nice and seductive to deal with non-democratic systems where there's no rule of law, but kind of short-term business success,” he said.
“It's always nice and it feels nice next quarter, next year. In the long run, the price that you pay, the price that a company pays, the price that a country pays, it’s high. And in the case of China is very visible, the dependency is growing already.
“The CEO of Daimler had to publicly apologise twice because one advertisement was quoting the Dalai Lama – that is in a way a kind of indication which way Europe would go if China is our new ally and not the United States, not the UK, not the other democratic free market economies in the world,” Döpfner stated.
His BBC interview followed the publication of a strongly-worded opinion piece in Business Insider, which is owned by Axel Springer.
In the article, Döpfner said: “Europe has been avoiding the alliance question for a long time, but [now] is the time to make that decision. This does not directly have to do with the coronavirus crisis. And it certainly has nothing to do with the question of where the virus originated.
“The crisis focuses the way we look at long-standing dependencies, even those in so-called vital supply chains, how we see fundamental differences in communication and crisis management, and our regard for what is ultimately a completely different concept of humanity. Employees from the Robert Koch Institute estimate that China kept the virus secret during very decisive weeks, then played it down and, by doing so, facilitated its spread worldwide.”
In his Radio 4 interview, Döpfner said the first step in a more equal relationship with China would simply be “a real principle of reciprocity”.
“That was the theory of the WTO membership of China in December 2001. But, in effect, it is a very asymmetrical relationship. Chinese companies can invest in or even take over key companies in Europe. That doesn't work in the other direction, and in general I think this comparison of a kind of free market economy, and a state capitalism, that is totally state driven and influenced is already an unfair comparison.”
He cited world GDP contributions showing China’s contribution more than doubling to 19.3%, while Europe and the US both fell during the same period “that shows clearly the asymmetry”.
“Chinese companies can invest in to even take over key companies in Europe. That doesn't work, the other direction, and in general I think this comparison of a kind of free market economy, and a state capitalism, that is totally state driven and influenced is already an unfair comparison.
“If current European and, above all, German policy on China continues, this will lead to a gradual decoupling from America and a step-by-step infiltration and subjugation by China.”
He described Italians as being “willing to subjugate themselves” to China’s “ridiculous euphemism of the ‘New Silk Road’,” and said that Africa was “on a gradual descent towards becoming a Chinese colony”, while warning that Europe could go the same way.
His opinion column concluded: “In the end, it is quite simple. What kind of future do we want for Europe? An alliance with an imperfect democracy or with a perfect dictatorship? It should be an easy decision for us to make.
“It is about more than just money. It is about our freedom, about Article 1 of Germany’s Basic Law, the greatest legal term that ever existed: human dignity.”
Axel Springer is focused on digital media channels but still publishes a number of newspapers including Bild and Welt. It has three newspaper printing plants in Germany.
Chinese Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Germany has jumped over the past five years, including major investments in Deutsch Bank and Daimler, and the takeovers of robot maker Kuka, pharma firm Biotest and EEW (Energy from Waste).
In the printing industry, Chinese firm Masterwork Machinery is the biggest shareholder in Heidelberg, and there has been speculation that it could increase its stake or even take over all or part of the struggling manufacturer.