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Analysis of Changes in Germany’s Perceptions of China


In an academic journal published by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a top think tank under the Ministry of State Security, scholars from Beijing Foreign Studies University analyze evolving debate on China in Germany, half a year into the federal German “traffic light” coalition. They argue that Germany sees China as both an economic competitor that “will surpass it” and a “world economic and political superpower” on which it is dependent economically. As a result of what they term this “extremely contradictory” assessment of China, there are still “some positive elements that should receive more attention” from Chinese policymakers seeking to further develop a practical, cooperative China-Germany relationship. The authors conclude by arguing that China should leverage “the internal rifts among the Western allies [that]…will be difficult to heal” to its advantage in creating a “new space for great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” and an “international environment conducive to China.”

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The new German “traffic light” government has been in power for half a year so far. Due to differences in the philosophies of the three major political parties in the coalition and the changing international situation, especially the intensifying conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Germany’s attitude toward China has become more confusing and ambiguous under the dual influence of domestic and foreign affairs. This deeply reflects the major changes that are appearing in perceptions of China within German mainstream society. Among German political, business, and academic circles, the mainstream media, and most of the general public, perceptions of China are different compared with the period when Angela Merkel was in power, in both breadth and depth. This will undoubtedly have an important impact on the German government’s repositioning of relations with China. Considering Germany’s central position in the EU, the readjustment of Sino-German relations will also directly affect the direction of China-EU relations. A rational and comprehensive analysis should be made of this, to both face the challenges it brings and see the inherent stability, and thereby avoid falling into the cognitive traps of pessimism and fatalism. Starting from the changes in German mainstream society’s perceptions of China in recent years, this paper seeks to analyze the multi-level reasons behind them and explore the possible positive factors, in order to help understand the German government’s policy adjustment toward China and the overall situation of China-EU relations.



Since Angela Merkel took office in 2005, Germany has mainly regarded China as a partner and a competitor, especially after the short-lived “values diplomacy” from 2005 to 2009, and in its relations with China it has leaned toward its national interests. With China’s further rise, however, and especially since 2017, Germany’s policy toward China has begun to shift from national interests to the values end of the spectrum. With the release of the European Commission’s EU-China: A strategic outlook on March 12, 2019, Germany’s mainstream perception of China shifted from the original two-dimensional role to a “three-fold” role, that is, China is both a partner and a competitor of Germany, but also an institutional adversary.1 Specifically, Germany must cooperate with China in areas where cooperation is possible, compete with China for global resources in appropriate contexts, and be able to deal with conflict with China when necessary.2

自2005 年默克尔主政以来,德国主要视中国为合作伙伴和竞争对手,尤其经历2005~2009 年“价值观外交”短暂波澜之后,对华关系一直偏向其国家利益一端。但随着中国的进一步崛起,尤其是2017年以来,德国对华政策开始从国家利益向价值观一端偏移。随着2019年3月12日欧盟委员会发布《欧中战略展望》,德国主流对华认知从原有的二维角色转变成“三和弦”角色,即中国既是德国的合作伙伴和竞争对手,更是制度性对手。具体而言,就是德国要在可能合作的领域与中国进行合作,在适当的场合与中国竞争全球资源,在必要时刻具备应对与中国产生冲突的能力。

First, China is seen as a partner that cannot be decoupled from. According to German political scientist Hanns Maull, China’s role as a partner for Germany can be understood in two ways. First, Germany understands very well that China is an indispensable economic and trade partner. This can be seen from the ever-increasing interdependence in the economic and trade relationship between China and Germany in recent years. On one hand, the German economy is dependent on China. For example, the development of Germany’s electronics and chemical industries cannot do without rare earth metals from China.3 At the same time, China is Germany’s largest market for car sales: About 40 percent of German cars are sold to China. On the other hand, China’s exports to Germany are booming, with emerging electronics, communication technology, and consumer goods enterprises getting huge orders from Germany,4 while Chinese enterprises have long depended on Germany for technology transfers. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, Sino-German economic cooperation has exhibited more pronounced interdependence. For example, Germany has purchased a large number of medical products from China, indicating that Germany’s dependence on the Chinese market has increased rather than decreased.5 The long-term win-win nature of Sino-German economic cooperation has solidified Germany’s perception of China as an indispensable economic partner. Second, Germany sees China as an important partner in global governance. Due to the importance of China today in the international community and a broad consensus on the “community of human destiny” in the international community, China has become an important partner with Germany in addressing important global issues such as climate change, transnational migration, nuclear weapons proliferation, artificial intelligence, poverty reduction, and public health. Germans are well aware that these important global issues cannot be solved without China. However, in terms of the perception of China as a mutually beneficial and important economic and trade partner for Germany, Germans are increasingly expressing a cautious and restrained attitude. This is because they are concerned that win-win outcomes for the two countries’ enterprises and economic policies could lead to confrontations over values outside the economic sphere. For example, Germans believe that every act of Sino-German economic cooperation advances the implementation of China’s economic strategy of military-civil fusion.6 On this point, Rolf Langhammer, a researcher at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, has warned in a survey study that German enterprises investing in China should not withdraw rashly from the Chinese market because such enterprises are already highly integrated into Chinese economic activity.7

第一,视中国为无法脱钩的合作伙伴。德国政治学家汉斯·毛尔(Hanns Maull)认为,可以从两个方面理解中国之于德国的合作伙伴角色意义。其一,德国深知中国是德国无法脱钩的经贸合作伙伴,这一点从近年中德两国经贸关系有增无减的相互依赖性可以看出:一方面,德国经济依赖中国,如一自2005年默克尔主政以来,德国主要视中国为合作伙伴和竞争对手,尤其经历2005~2009年“价德国电子和化工产业的发展离不开来自中的稀土金属,同时中国是德国最大的汽车销售市场,40%左右的德国汽车销往中国;另一方面,中国对德出口蒸蒸日上,新兴电子、通讯技术和消费品企业从德国获得了巨额订单,同时中国企业在技术转让上一直对德国存有依赖性。新冠疫情暴发以来,中德经济合作体现了更加明显的相互依赖性,例如,德国从中国购买了大量医疗产品,表明德国对中国市场的依赖程度不降反升。中德经济合作中的长期共赢稳固了德国将中国视为不可或缺的经济合作伙伴的认知。其二,德国视中国为全球治理中的重要合作伙伴。由于当前中国在国际社会中的重要地位以及“人类命运共同体”在国际社会中形成的广泛共识,中国在应对气候变化、跨国移民、核武器扩散、人工智能、减贫、公共卫生等重要全球影响议题方面与德国结成了重要合作伙伴。德国人深知,如果离开了中国,这些重要的全球性问题将无法解决。然而,在中国作为德国互利互赢的重要经贸合作伙伴的认知方面,德国人表现出越来越谨慎和克制的姿态,因为其担忧两国企业以及两国经济政策方面的共赢会引发经济领域以外的价值观方面的对立,如德国人认为每一次中德经济合作行为都会推进中国军民融合经济战略的实施。对此,德国基尔世界经济研究所研究员罗尔夫·朗哈默尔(Rolf Langhammer)在一份调查中曾警告,德国在华投资企业不要轻易退出中国市场,因为这些企业已经高度地融入中国的经济活动。

Second, China is increasingly seen as a strong economic competitor. Thomas Heck, a China expert at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says that in addition to the well-known artificial intelligence and Internet of Things industries, China as an economic rival poses an economic threat to Germany in two other areas: electric vehicles and, especially, machinery manufacturing. Although the Chinese machinery manufacturing industry does not have superiority in core technology, it already constitutes a strong competitor to German machinery manufacturing when quality and price factors are taken together.8 In addition, Chinese investors began to acquire a large number of German enterprises in 2016, and Germans increasingly feel that China is an economic rival that should not be underestimated. The most famous such case is the acquisition of German robotics giant Kuka Group by China’s Midea Group. Although the acquisition of German companies by Chinese enterprises is good for German jobs and the domestic market, Germans believe that in the long run there is a risk of losing core technology, which would have a negative impact on the competitiveness and innovation of German industry. Direct investments by Chinese enterprises in Germany have met with strenuous criticism from the German public. In 2018, Germany amended the Foreign Trade Ordinance to further strengthen security reviews of M&A by enterprises from non-EU countries. In December 2020, the German government ordered a halt to the acquisition of German radio technology company IMST GmbH by China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation Limited (CASIC), arguing that it would threaten Germany’s future security and technological autonomy in mobile communications.9 At the same time, Germans have been reluctant to acknowledge the fact that things are not what they once were: Germany used to sell high-speed rail to China, but now China sells its own high-speed rail all over the world. They have even called on the federal government to restrict Chinese direct investment in Germany in order to prevent the loss of core German high-tech knowhow, citing the high degree of similarity between Chinese high-speed rail technology and related designs and Germany’s Intercity Express (ICE) trains.10 However, a report in the Der Volkswirt magazine on March 22, 2022 shows that despite the impact of the pandemic, Chinese enterprises have invested in or acquired up to 35 enterprises in Germany in 2022. Despite the fact that Chinese direct investment in Germany is something of a hot potato, they do not want Germany to lose its competitive advantage because of the loss of core technology, and view China as a “thorn in their side.” Nonetheless, they must acknowledge China’s strength as a powerful competitor.11

第二,越来越将中国视作强劲的经济竞争对手。普华永道中国问题专家托马斯·黑克(Thomas Heck)表示,除了众所周知的人工智能与物联网行业,中国这个经济竞争对手给德国带来的经济威胁还表现在电动汽车与机械制造两个领域,尤其是在机械制造方面。虽然中国机械制造业的核心技术不占优势,但从综合质量与价格两个因素来看,它已经构成德国机械制造业的强大竞争者。此外,2016年中国投资者开始大量收购德国企业,德国人越发觉得中国这个经济对手不容小觑,其中最著名的案例是中国美的集团收购德国机器人巨头库卡(Kuka)集团。虽然中国企业收购德国公司有利于德国就业岗位和国内市场,然而德国人认为从长远看有流失核心技术的风险,对德国工业的竞争力和创新力将产生负面影响。随之,中企在德直接投资遭到了德国民众的强烈抨击。2018年德国通过修订《对外贸易条例》进一步强化对非欧盟国家企业并购的安全审查。2020年12月,德国政府下令停止中国航天工业发展股份有限公司对德国无线电技术公司(IMST)的收购,认为这会威胁到德国未来移动通讯领域的安全和科技自主权。同时,德国人一直不愿意承认一个今非昔比的事实:以前德国向中国出售高铁,如今中国将自己的高铁卖到世界各地。他们甚至以中国的高铁技术和相关设计与德国的城际特快列车(ICE)高度相似为由,呼吁联邦政府限制中国在德直接投资,以防止德国高科技核心技术流失。然而,德国《经济人杂志》2022年3月22日的一份报道显示,尽管受到疫情影响,2022年中企对德投资或收购高达35笔;尽管中国在德直接投资如烫手山芋,他们不希望德国因为核心技术的流失而失去竞争优势,视中国为“眼中钉”,然而却不得不承认中国这个强大竞争对手的实力。

Third, China has been elevated from a competitor to an institutional adversary. In the eyes of Germans, institutional adversaries are those who endorse other models of government, and they believe that China’s party system goes against the “universal values” of freedom, democracy, rule of law, and human rights preached by the West. When it comes to defending Western-centered “universal values,” Germans regard China to be an institutional adversary. Compared to the first two roles, the new government is putting greater emphasis on China’s role as Germany’s institutional adversary, more so than it did under Merkel. The Western world, including Germany, has always believed that China’s political system could be changed through improved economic relations, that is, Germany’s “change through trade” approach to China has been there all along.12 However, as China’s economic power strengthens, the growing tendency of Germans to believe that China plays the role of Germany’s “institutional adversary” is becoming clearer. In the eyes of Germans, China’s economic system is a socialist market economy with goals that are the complete opposite of those pursued by Germany’s social welfare market economy,13 and its political system emphasizes the centrality of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, it is institutional advantages that are driving the realization of the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and China’s success in the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic has further highlighted these institutional advantages and attracted global attention. This has reinforced the German perception of China as a threat to Western democracy and a powerful “institutional adversary.”14 However, within this perception, different voices have emerged in German politics. For example, Rainer Stinner, a former federal councilor and parliamentary caucus foreign policy spokesman for Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP), stated frankly in a report that huge historical and cultural differences have led to differences in institutions and values between the West and China. Although he favors the West in the institutional competition between the West and China, he said that it would be inappropriate if Germany were to adhere to the Western view of human rights in defending its own interests.15

第三,将中国从竞争对手进一步提升为制度性对手。在德国人眼中,制度性对手指的是为另一种政府模式代言的人,他们认为中国的政党制度与西方宣扬的自由、民主、法制、人权等“普世价值”背道而驰。为了维护以西方为中心的“普世价值”,德国人视中国为制度性对手。相比前两个角色而言,新政府比默克尔时期更强调中国作为德国制度性对手这一角色。一直以来,包括德国在内的西方世界认为可以通过经济关系的改进,进而改变中国的政治制度,即德国对华“以商促变”图谋始终存在。然而,随着中国经济实力的日益增强,德国人越发认为中国作为德国“制度对手”的角色定位越来越清晰。在德国人眼中,中国的经济体制是社会主义市场经济,与德国的社会福利市场经济体制追求的目标完全相反,而且中国的政治体制是对中国共产党领导核心地位的强调。事实上,正是制度优势推动着中华民族伟大复兴中国梦的实现,加之抗击新冠疫情的成功更加突显出了这种制度优势,引起全球的关注,这更让德国人认为中国是对西方民主制度的威胁,是强大的“制度对手”。然而,在这个认知中,德国的政界也出现了不同的声音。例如,德国自民党前联邦议员、议会党团外交政策发言人施廷纳(Rainer Stinner)在一次报告中坦言,历史和文化上的巨大差异导致了中西方在制度与价值观方面的不同。他虽然在中西方的制度竞争中偏向西方,但是同时表示如果德国在维护自己利益方面一味地坚持西方的人权观是不合适的。


The “three-fold” positioning reflects the current basic perceptions of the German political and business communities, intellectual elites, and the public towards China, and within it one can see Germany’s wavering attitude towards China. It also reflects the truly complex psychology of German society vis-a-vis China. There are many complex factors behind this contradictory, confusing, complicated, and tense relationship, which can be said to be due to changes and developments in Germany and China themselves, as well as the result of the influence of international power games, while traditional German thinking also plays an important role.


1. Changes in Germany’s domestic political ecology. The three-party “traffic light” coalition, which opened a new era in the politics of the Federal Republic of Germany since its founding, is the result of a game involving the diversified interests of the people and compromises in the political demands of political parties. It reflects the increasing instability and uncertainty of Germany’s internal politics and the fragmentation of the German political party landscape.16 Internal politics is a continuation of foreign affairs, and the division of domestic political forces has also helped bring about the changes in Germany’s perceptions of China and even its policy toward China. Judging from the political positions of the three major ruling parties in Germany, wherein the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is a center-left party, the Green Party (“the Greens”) is a left-wing party, and the FDP is a center-right party, the tension formed by the differences and similarities in the political positions of the three parties determines the multiple tensions among various influencing factors in the process of change in Germany’s perceptions of China. Firstly, the new government mentioned China 14 times in the coalition agreement17 and put forward its own ideas on Taiwan-related issues based on its values. For the first time, it explicitly called for further strengthening Germany’s “China competence.” Secondly, it further emphasizes Germany’s “three-fold” role positioning of China. For example, the Greens and the FDP have a strong ideological orientation, preferring to make a lot of noise about China’s human rights issues, opposing the signing of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. They even challenge the existing policy bottom line on the Taiwan issue occasionally, advocating greater participation of Taiwan in international affairs, and thus prefer to see China as a competitor and institutional adversary. In contrast, the SPD wants to maintain the continuity of its policy tone towards China. It wants to strengthen defenses against the growth of Chinese power, but also refuses to choose confrontation with China or economic decoupling. It is willing to treat China as a partner, and put that aspect at the forefront of the “three-fold” role.18 Thus, the SPD’s more moderate and pragmatic approach to China is forms a counterbalance to the relatively hard-line, values-oriented approach of the Greens and the FDP. The political positions within Germany’s ruling party coalition, which show clear-cut barriers in their attitudes toward China, have served to shape Germany’s domestic political environment and the environment for social discourse on China, and have brought greater diversification and complexity to perceptions of China within mainstream German society. Moreover, in today’s increasingly polarized and populist environment in the Western world, it is easier for German political elites to exploit and appeal to public sentiment to further their policy aims. In particular, the several waves in Germany of the COVID-19 epidemic that has ravaged the world since 2020 have accelerated political strife and polarization within Germany. Under such circumstances, Germany’s political elite have skillfully exploited these political conflicts and directed the accumulated grievances arising from them toward Germany’s international strategic adversaries, China first and foremost. This has also accelerated the shift in perceptions of China within Germany, from political elites to the public at large.


2. Difficulty adapting to China’s rapid rise. China used to be a partner that could be “helped,” but now with China’s development, Germans increasingly feel the relationship with China to be “unequal” and “unfamiliar,” and mainstream society has even started having more discussion about the “China threat theory.” Firstly, China’s creation of the China-Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) cooperation mechanism is seen by Germans as having generated intra-European tensions. German critics of this cooperation are concerned that growing dependence of CEE countries on China will create potential conflicts within the EU, affecting the EU’s core position. Germany is excluded from this cooperation mechanism, so in the eyes of Germans it is Chinese interference in the geopolitical space of European countries, and a deliberate attempt to undermine, divide, and dismantle the EU. Secondly, the Belt and Road Initiative construction proposed by China in 2013 is seen by Germany as a manifestation of China’s economic expansion. Huawei in particular is suspected by Germany of being a “Chinese spy” due to its technological superiority, and it was believed that Huawei would try to open a back door for so-called espionage and sabotage activities through its telecommunication products. This caused the German federal government to be torn constantly between the economic interests of infrastructure expansion on one hand and the security interests of core infrastructure and data protection on the other, and ultimately unable to make a rational decision.19 The direct result was that Huawei was ultimately unable to participate in the construction of Germany’s 5G network in 2020. As a result, German attitudes toward China shifted from “helpful” to “guarded,” and perceptions tended toward viewing China as an economic competitor. When emotional fear and defensiveness brought on by the rise of another country escalate to ideological hostility and confrontation, the country in question will be criticized as an ideological opponent, especially when the rising country, in order to build its own good international image, participates more actively in global governance, expresses its ideas on maintaining world peace, and shares the international public goods brought by its rise.20 For example, in 2021, China took the lead in global public health governance by cooperating with developing countries on vaccine production, providing nearly 2 billion doses of vaccines to more than 120 countries and international organizations, making it the largest foreign provider of vaccines.21 However, China’s proactive approach to global vaccine cooperation has been twisted by the German media into “vaccine diplomacy,” in which China uses vaccines to play the role of “savior of the world” in the international community.22 In this way, China’s rise has accelerated the evolution of German perceptions of China, from an “economic competitor” to a “values adversary.”


3. The complex background of China-United States-Europe relations. Whether it is the “European Germany” emphasized during the Kohl era or the “German Europe” of the Merkel era, the changes in Germany’s perceptions of China are largely influenced by changes in Europe’s position in the international landscape, especially by the complex China-United States-Europe triangle. After Biden came to power, the United States readjusted its transatlantic partnership, and in order to hold on to its position as the world’s top power, it needs Europe to be its loyal ally and draw closer to it, and to maintain consistency with it in terms of China policy.23 According to a poll by the Körber Foundation in Germany, 56 percent of respondents believed Germany should have closer ties with the United States, while only 27 percent said they should become closer to China. The pro-U.S. political elite in Germany has also continued to emphasize that Germany ought to have greater prominence in the alliance with the United States, and be closer to the United States. European countries, represented by Germany, want to join forces with the United States to address the challenges posed by China’s rise, to stop China from strengthening further, and ultimately to win the economic and institutional competition.24 In fact, compared to the post-World War II recovery period, Europe’s dependence on the United States today is gradually falling, especially in the current tense pattern of China-U.S. competition, and Europe is constantly and actively seeking strategic autonomy in international affairs. That is to say, although the relationship between Europe and the United States has returned to the status of allies after Biden’s rise to power, Europe is not willing to choose only one side in the China-U.S. game, but rather chooses sides according to different issues, oscillating between China and the United States with an opportunistic, trader’s mentality, in order to profit from them.25 In other words, Europe is no longer willing to maintain an equidistant attitude between the United States, a flawed democracy, and China, a country with different values. As European Council President Charles Michel warned in 2020, Europe must become one of the global players, while avoiding becoming a playing field and a victim in the struggle between China and the United States. Which is to say, Europe will no longer adopt equidistant diplomacy between China and the United States: First, it believes that the transatlantic relationship has not always been reliable in years past, and that Europe has been subject to the United States and NATO in security matters;26 second, Europe will express and defend its independent positions and interests internationally, and is unwilling to blindly follow the United States and to be caught in a misguided struggle for world dominance in order to maintain the United States’ position of global hegemony.27 At the same time, despite growing calls in Europe to regard China as an institutional adversary, China sees the EU as a necessary global partner and an important force against the United States. Europe is now adopting a “third way” strategy between China and the United States in order to shape its role as a balancer in international affairs.28 Germany’s situation is even more complicated: With Europe as its diplomatic umbrella on one side, the United States as its most important values ally on the other, and China as its most important partner in terms of interests on the other, it is hard for Germany to go it alone in the difficult triangular relationship between China, the United States, and Europe. Germany has gained huge benefits from China in the Sino-U.S. trade dispute, and is more interested in continuing to realize its interests in China than in being a mere lapdog of the United States.29

三是复杂的中美欧关系大背景。不管是科尔时期强调的“欧洲的德国”,还是默克尔时代的“德国的欧洲”,德国对华认知的变化在很大程度上受到欧洲在国际格局中的地位变化的影响,尤其受到复杂的中美欧三角关系的影响。拜登上台执政后,美国重新调整跨大西洋伙伴关系,为了守住世界第一大国的地位,需要欧洲成为忠实盟友,向其靠拢,在对华政策上与其保持一致。根据德国科尔伯基金会的民调,56%的受访者认为德国应该与美国建立更加紧密的关系,只有27%的受访者表示应与中国保持更近的距离。德国国内亲美的政治精英也不断强调德国理应更加突出与美国的盟友关系,更加靠近美国。以德国为代表的欧洲国家希望与美国联合应对中国崛起带来的挑战,阻止中国的进一步强大并最终赢得经济与制度竞争的胜利。事实上,与二战后复苏时期相比,当今的欧洲对美国的依赖性在逐步降低,尤其是在当今紧张的中美竞争格局下,正不断积极地寻求在国际事务中的战略自主,也就是说,尽管欧美关系在拜登上台后重回盟友状态,但是欧洲不愿意在中美博弈中只选一边站,而是根据不同的议题分别选边站,以机会主义和交易者的心态在中美之间摇摆,以从中渔利。换言之,当前欧洲不愿意再在有缺陷的民主国家美国和不同价值观的中国之间保持等距离的态度,正如欧洲理事会主席夏尔·米歇尔(Charles Michel)2020年就曾警告的:欧洲必须变成全球玩家之一,同时避免欧洲成为中美斗争的赛场和牺牲品。也就是说,欧洲不再会在中美之间采取等距离外交:第一,欧洲认为,在过去的几年中,跨大西洋关系并不是一直可靠,欧洲在安全方面一直受制于美国和北约;第二,欧洲在国际上表达和维护自己独立的立场和利益,不愿意盲目地跟从美国,不愿意为维持美国的世界霸权地位而陷入争夺世界统治地位的错误斗争中。与此同时,尽管在欧洲把中国看成制度对手的呼声越来越高,然而中国却把欧盟当作必要的全球合作伙伴,当作对抗美国的重要力量。目前欧洲正在中美之间采取“第三条道路”的策略,以塑造其在国际事务上的平衡者角色。德国的处境更加复杂:一边是外交保护伞的欧洲,另一边是最重要的价值观盟友美国,还有一边是最重要的利益伙伴中国,在中美欧之间艰难的三角关系很难独善其身。德国曾在中美贸易纷争中从中国获取了巨大的利益,更愿意继续在中国实现自己的利益,而不愿意仅作美国的袖珍犬。

4. Some characteristics of the Germans themselves also play an important role at a deeper level. In general, the German mindset tends to be hidebound by convention and rigidly fixed, and this is one of the important factors behind why changes in Germany’s perceptions of China are out of sync with those other European countries. Germans have long been poked fun at by Latin communities in continental Europe, especially Italians, for being a people with no sense of beauty, mechanical, and “linear.” Firstly, this national character of conformity and inflexible thinking has made it difficult for Germans to change their ingrained prejudice against China, and made them unwilling to positively affirm and accept China’s rise. However, facing a rising power with increasing strength, the gap between objective reality and ingrained prejudices can cause Germany to lose its “sense of superiority” in front of China, triggering subjective “status anxiety.” In terms of policy and public opinion, this heightens the contradictions between China and the current world leaders,30 and in terms of perceptions of China, this is manifested in a view of China as an economic competitor and institutional adversary, and in an emotionally alienated relationship with China. Second, the Germans’ rigid and fixed mode of logic has left them momentarily at a loss and even disoriented when faced with the failure of their “change through trade” strategy toward China. Germany has long considered “change through trade” to be a panacea ensuring that German policy toward China maintains a balance between national interests and values. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel took this strategy to extremes. However, Germans argue that this strategy has only gained the special status they have enjoyed so far in the Chinese market, where there is huge market demand for high-quality products such as cars, machinery, and building components, but has failed to achieve the political change they want to see in China. On this point, Nils Schmid, foreign affairs spokesman for the SPD Bundestag caucus, said, “The convergence theory of ‘change through trade’ does not seem to be working at this point. I don’t want to declare it a failure, but China is narrowing the space for such an approach, at least at present. Although we will not stop our economic cooperation with China, at least Germany’s approach to China will have to be more clearly European-oriented in the future, and at the same time must move away from purely trade and economic topics in order to broaden Germany’s perception of China.”31 The failure of “change through trade” upset Germans. They were unable to accept, and even less willing to admit, the failure of what they assumed was a well-thought-out and prudent plan, and in order to find a reasonable explanation for the uncertainty in Sino-German relations and the damage to German interests that resulted from the failure of the plan, Germans prefer to reorient their perception of China from that of an economic partner to that of a competitor and institutional adversary, guided by the outdated, ingrained perception that “non-Western systems cannot achieve economic breakthroughs.” German hidebound thinking is even more reluctant to see the success of the Chinese model shatter the myth that “Western democracy is the only path to success,” and therefore prefers to move away from “inequality,” “injustice,” and “human rights.” Therefore, they prefer to look to issues such as “inequality,” “injustice,” and “human rights” to find suitable excuses for putting themselves justifiably on the opposite side of China, making their perception of China further divorced from reality.

四是德国人自身的一些特点也在深层次发挥着重要作用。总体上,德国人思维模式倾向墨守成规、僵硬固化,这也是德国对华认知的变化与其他欧洲国家并不同步的重要因素之一。一直以来,德国人被欧洲大陆拉丁系族群特别是意大利人调侃为没有美感、刻板和线条化的民族。首先,这种墨守成规的民族性格和缺乏变通的思维逻辑导致德国人很难改变对中国固有的偏见,不愿意正面肯定和接受中国的崛起。然而在实力不断增强的崛起国面前,客观现实与固有偏见之间会形成落差,让德国在中国面前丧失“优越感”,引发主观上的“地位焦虑”,在政策和舆论上加剧中国与当前世界主导国之间的矛盾,而在对华的认知上就会表现为视中国为经济竞争者和制度对手,在情感上疏远与中国的关系。其次,德国人僵硬固化的逻辑模式使得他们在面对对华“以商促变”图谋的失利时变得一时无所适从甚至迷失方向。一直以来,德国认为“以商促变”是保证德国对华政策在国家利益与价值观之间保持平衡的灵丹妙药。施罗德和默克尔两任总理将这一战略发挥到了极致。但德国人认为,该战略只是获得了迄今为止在中国市场上享有的特殊地位,即汽车、机械和建筑部件等高质量产品在中国拥有巨大的市场需求,但并没有在中国实现他们想看到的政治变革。对此,德国社民党联邦议院党团外交事务发言人尼尔斯·施密德(Nils Schmid)表示:“以商促变”这个趋同理论在目前看来是行不通的,我不想宣告它失败了,但是中国至少目前让这种接近的空间变得狭窄了。虽然我们不会停止与中国的经济合作,但是至少德国的对华态度在将来要体现更加明显的欧洲导向,同时要从单纯的贸易和经济话题中跳出来以扩宽德国对华认知的广度。“以商促变”的失败打乱了德国人的阵脚,他们无法接受,更不愿意承认这个自以为周密谨慎计划的失败,为了给因计划失败产生的中德关系的不确定性以及德国利益受损找到合理的解释,德国人宁愿以过时的固有认知即“非西方体制无法取得经济上的突破”为导向,重新定位对华认知,即从经济伙伴转向利益竞争者和制度对手。德国人墨守成规的思维逻辑更不愿意看到中国模式的成功打破了“西方民主制度是唯一成功路径”的神话,因此,宁愿从“不平等”、“不公正”、“人权”等议题上寻找合适的借口让自己名正言顺地置于中国的对立面,让自己对华认知更加远离现实。


In fact, Germany’s psychology toward China is extremely contradictory. On one hand, it fears that China will surpass it, guards against Chinese competition, and fears losing its sense of superiority in front of China; on the other hand, it recognizes China’s influence and importance, needs to rely on China, and hopes to cooperate with China in economic and global governance fields. But from this contradictory attitude one can find that the changes in Germany’s perception of China are not all negative, and within the repeated pulling between rationality and irrationality, cooperation and competition, there are some positive elements that should receive more attention, as they also provide possibilities for China and Germany to continue their practical, cooperative relationship.


1. From the past of looking down on, to a same-level view or even “looking up” to China. In Germany’s past, China was perceived as a developing country, but now Germany has to be on an “equal footing” with China, or even to “look up” to China. The EU-China: A strategic outlook report fully reflects an important change perceptions of China in the politics of Europe, including Germany, in which China is no longer defined as a developing country, but as a key global player and an advanced technological power.32 This change is also reflected in the German media and public’s perception of China. The German media has used the phrase “the sleeping lion has awakened” to describe this change.33 According to a study published by the Pew Research Center in mid-September 2020, 55 percent of German respondents considered China to be the world’s leading economic power, while only 17 percent consider the United States to be the world’s leading economic power. In addition, many German polls also show that the German public believes China is already a world economic power.34 The change in the German public’s perception of China from a developing country to a world economic power is reflected most directly in the changing perceptions of the “Made in China” image. As is well known, in the international community, “Made in China” had always been synonymous with low-cost products. However, public opinion surveys show that German consumers’ perceptions of Chinese products and brands have changed over the past five years. In a poll conducted by Huawei in 2016, more than half of respondents thought that Chinese products were of poor quality. Over the following years, however, various polls have reflected a significant increase in the use and appeal of Chinese goods in Germany, with many German consumers able to accurately identify Chinese brands like Huawei and Xiaomi by their brand names. According to the results of a 2017 survey by the German Association for Quality (DGQ), 70 percent of respondents had positive views of Chinese electronics. A poll conducted by Germany’s EBC Hochschule business school in 2019 showed that, even among German consumers who favor Apple products, only 8.6 percent of respondents had a negative attitude toward Chinese electronics. According to relevant data, German consumers’ perceptions of Chinese products and brands showed great improvement in 2020, and acceptance of Chinese products is increasing particularly among young Germans who have grown up with two Chinese brands, Huawei and TikTok. On one hand, “Made in China” still stands for low prices, and on the other, many Chinese brands have become leading international brands.35 The changing image of “Made in China” is a true portrayal of how the German public sees China as a world economic superpower. In addition, the German public feels strongly that China is playing an increasingly important role on the world stage as a global political power.36 China’s diplomatic progress has made the German public more aware that today’s China is not only a world economic superpower, but also a highly confident world political power.37 Although the image of China in the German media today is still predominantly negative, more and more of the German public believes that China is no longer a backward developing country, but a world economic and political superpower and that can compete with the United States.


2. Facing up to a Chinese development path that is different from that of the West. Germany is still increasingly finding China to be showing more institutional self-confidence on a global scale. Capacity for collective action. China’s crisis management achievements during the COVID-19 epidemic have left the German public in awe of the Chinese system’s advantages as shown in its capacity for collective action. Germans acknowledge that the fight against the epidemic reflected the advantages of the Chinese system, namely the enormous capacity for national mobilization and collective action demonstrated in the crisis, something the Germans were fundamentally incapable of achieving.38 Flexibility together with a planned approach. According to Jürgen Kracht, a German entrepreneur and China studies expert, there is a big difference between the Chinese and the Germans in terms of decision-making speed. Although Germany is still the leader in the international technology market, compared to the Chinese, the Germans take things too seriously and are too slow to develop products, so much so that the products the Germans bring to market are too mature. In contrast, the Chinese consider speed to be a very important source of international competitiveness, so they emphasize speed to market, for example by bringing less mature products to market first and then adjusting them according to customer requirements.39 Side-by-side with its flexibility in making specific decisions, the Chinese system is forward-looking and strategically visionary in a way that is simply unimaginable to Germans.40 The digital lifestyle. The German population living and working in China strongly feels the high degree of convenience, comfort, and well-being that high technology brings to the daily lives of Chinese nationals: The seamlessly connected rail transportation in China’s major cities and the ease of getting around provided by shared bicycles, as well as the full coverage of China’s domestic network brought by China’s advanced communication technology, have created digital modes of work and modern, digital currency-influenced lifestyles for the Chinese people to enjoy. Kracht says that Chinese nationals rely on smartphones and virtual digital currency payment methods to a degree that is unimaginable to Germans, and that such high-tech daily life is also unattainable in Germany. In this respect, Germany has clearly fallen behind. With regard to digital platforms and software use, German enterprises are too slow to react, too apprehensive, and too constrained by institutional aspects such as data protection.41 It is worth noting that the group of German citizens who feel the strengths of the Chinese system most strongly and directly are those who have experienced Chinese culture and institutions first-hand, mainly German businesspeople who have worked in China for years, foreign students studying in China, and expatriates in China. In contrast, the image of China in Germany’s domestic media is still predominantly negative, and those who have experienced the Chinese system first-hand always complain that the German media does not report the real China, that the China they see is very different from the China they see in the German media, and that the German media should report the positive aspects of China.42 Even though the German media has been consistently critical of China, more and more Germans have begun to look at the Chinese system more squarely.

(二)正视中国与西方不同的发展道路。德国仍越来越发现,中国在全球范围内展现出更多的制度自信。第一,集体行动能力。中国在疫情中的危机管理成就让德国民众惊叹中国制度体现的集体性行动能力的优势。德国人承认,抗疫体现了中国制度的优势,即在危机中所展现的巨大的国家动员能力和集体性行为能力,而德国人却根本做不到这一点。第二,灵活性与计划性并存。德国企业家和中国学研究专家于尔根·科拉赫特(Jürgen Kracht)认为,中国人和德国人在决策速度方面存在很大区别。虽然德国目前还是国际科技市场的领先者,但是相比中国人而言,德国人研发产品的速度太慢,做事情太较真,以至于德国人带到市场上的产品都过于成熟。相反,中国人认为速度是很重要的国际竞争力,因此重视上市速度,例如先把不太成熟的产品推向市场,然后再根据客户要求进行方面反应太慢,顾虑太多,受到数据保护等制度方面的羁绊太大。值得一提的是,对中国制度的长处认知感受最强烈、最直接的德国民众群体是那些中国文化和制度的亲历者们,主要包括长年在中国工作的德国商人、在中国学习的留学生和在华旅居者。相比之下,德国国内媒体中的中国形象仍然以负面为主,对此中国制度的亲历者们总是抱怨,德国媒体没有报道真实的中国,认为他们所看到的中国与德国媒体中的中国大有区别,认为德国媒体应该报道中国积极的方面。即使德国媒体对中国一直持批评的声音,越来越多的德国人已经开始正视中国制度。

3. More proactive approach to understanding and responding to China. Confronted with China’s development, Germany continues to realize that its own institutional dividend is gradually being lost, and it is adapting and reshaping its original strategy of engagement with China. Although, in terms of political institutions, China’s path is very different from the liberal democratic path that Germany and other Western countries brag about, the German public is beginning to shift its perspective and start thinking about the strengths of the Chinese system. However, Germany’s emphasis on building its “China competence” (Chinakompetenz) by learning from China is fundamentally aimed at better understanding China in order to be fully ready for the challenges coming from China. At the national level, the German federal government has implemented a Germany-wide project, with foreign and educational policy features, to build “China competence.” In October 2015, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) launched the China Strategy 2015-2020 to develop German “China competence” in education and science, and to strengthen strategic cooperation between Germany and China in science and education.43 In May 2017, the BMBF, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK) conducted a comprehensive review of the current state of “China competence” in Germany, and jointly launched an initiative to support research on “knowing and understanding China.” At the end of 2019, Mercator joined other institutions to establish an educational network for the development of “China competence” in German primary and secondary school students. In June 2021, the BMBF released the Funding Guidelines for the Regional Development of ‘China Competence’ in Academia, with plans for a total of 24 million euros to be invested from 2017 to 2024 in support of developing independent “China competence” in German academia. The emphasis on “China competence” perfectly reflects the latent concerns in German politics and academia about China. Building “China competence” is an important part of Germany’s current China policy, and the German government has placed added emphasis on building “China competence” in the political sphere, treating “China competence” as a part of political education in Germany. It also emphasizes the importance of maintaining a sober attitude toward Sino-German relations while recognizing the differences in systems. Moreover, “China competence” building is to start in elementary school and go through all levels of university and vocational education, and related support programs (e.g., study tours to China).44 BMBF Minister Anja Karliczek believes it is essential to develop independent “China competence,” that is, the Chinese government should not interfere with the development of “China competence” in Germany. In the economic cooperation area, she emphasizes that German enterprises with business in China should try to recruit employees with “China competence” from Germany. By building “China competence,” Germany wants to build its own public discourse on China and limit China’s decision-making power and voice in German universities, research activities, and Sino-German economic cooperation.45

(三)更加主动了解和应对中国。面对中国的发展,德国不断认识到自身的制度红利在逐渐失去,原来的对华接触战略也在不断调适与重塑。虽然在政治体制方面,中国道路与德国等西方国家标榜的自由民主道路截然不同,德国民众却也开始转变视角,开始思考中国制度的长处所在。但德国强调要通过向中国学习来构建德国的“中国能力”(Chinakompetenz),其根本目的是要更好地了解中国,以做好一切准备应对来自中国的挑战。在国家层面上,德国联邦政府实施了一项全德范围、兼具外交和教育政策特色的构建“中国能力”的项目。德国联邦教育与研究部(BMBF)于2015 年10 月推出了《中国策略2015-2020》,以发展德国教育与科学领域的“中国能力”,加强中德在科教方面战略性的合作。2017 年5 月,德国联邦教育与研究部、外交部和德国各州文教部长联席会议(KMK)全面检视了德国的“中国能力”现状,共同发起倡议支持
“认识中国、了解中国”的研究。2019 年底,墨卡托联合其他机构建立了培养德国中小学生“中国能力”的教育网络。2021 年6 月,德国联邦教育与研究部发布了《学术界“中国能力”区域发展资助指南》,拟在2017~2024 年共投资2400 万欧元用于资助德国学术界构建独立的“中国能力”。强调“中国能力”恰恰反映出德国政界、学界对中国的潜在担忧。作为当前德国对华政策重要组成部分的“中国能力”构建,德国政府更加强调政治领域“中国能力”的构建,将“中国能力”视作德国政治教育的一部分;同时强调在认识到制度不同之时对中德关系要保持清醒的态度;而且“中国能力”构建要从小学抓起,并贯穿到大学、职业教育以及相关辅助项目(如来华游学项目)的各个层面。联邦教育与研究部部长安雅·卡尔利泽克(Anja Karliczek)认为一定要发展独立的“中国能力”,即不能让中国政府插手德国的“中国能力”构建。在经济合作方面,强调具有对华业务的德国企业要尽量从德国招募具有“中国能力”的员工。通过构建的“中国能力”,德国要构建自己的有关中国的公开话语,限制中国在德国高校、科研活动以及中德经济合作中决定权和发言权。



Generally speaking, social perceptions drive the formation of the policy-making frameworks within which policy makers address specific issues and the public understands them. This helps to reduce complex realities to an understandable and workable level. The fact that Germany’s mainstream perceptions of China today are more disjointed than before is bound to have a significant impact on the shaping of its new framework for China policy. At the same time, although Germany’s leadership position has declined in relative terms since Merkel left the political scene, considering Germany’s own strength, German policy on China still influences the relationship between China and Europe to a large extent. Therefore, in the face of increasingly complex and diverse domestic perceptions of China, as well as the United States’ constant pressure on Germany and Europe, Germany needs to shed its spectator role in the great power competition and strengthen collective action within the EU by standing together with Europe and place its China policy within the overall EU China policy framework.46


Although Germany’s perceptions of China are undergoing new changes, there are still some positive elements in them. Under the self-contained EU China policy framework, future German governments will not completely decouple from China and go against the basic principles of European pluralism, let alone erect walls on its own, and the doors of the German market will remain open to China.47 This year is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Germany, and it should be taken as an opportunity to correctly understand the changes in Germany’s perceptions of China, in order to promote the healthy development of Sino-German and Sino-European relations. First, we should think deeply about the reality reflected by the changes in Germany’s perceptions of China. This is the inevitable result of cultural asymmetries and the clash of real interests. We should correctly grasp the new changes facing the two countries and avoid falling into misunderstandings, especially the trap of “clash of civilizations” theory. Second, we should calmly respond to future trends and developments in Germany’s perceptions of China, analyze the deep-seated reasons for such changes, and calmly deal with the possible impacts and challenges to the future development of Sino-German relations brought by the new perceptions. Third, we must attach importance to the changing pattern of Germany’s perceptions of China. The changes in Germany’s perceptions of China have a deep foundation in public opinion, which is often utilized by the political elite. We should fully understand this principle, get closer to the German reality, pay attention to the reasons for the formation of people’s perceptions of China, actively carry out activities for communication, understanding, and dialogue, and seek common ground while reserving our differences. Fourth, the development of Germany’s relations with other Western countries should be skillfully utilized to create a new space for great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. As mankind faces changes not seen in a century, Germany’s perceptions of China are changing at the same time that the Western allies, including the United States, are adjusting their perceptions of China. Although there is a general consensus on responding to the rise of China, the internal rifts among the Western allies will be difficult to heal, and it is important to create an international environment conducive to China as much as possible. Fifth, we should effectively utilize the strategic opportunity afforded by Germany’s “China competence” building. The starting point of Germany’s project to build “China competence” is to counter the so-called threat posed by the rise of China. Building Sino-German intercultural competence by supporting student and academic exchanges between China and Germany, and supporting Germans in learning Chinese, will help Germany to better understand China. However, since for most Germans, perceptions of China are indirect perceptions built on a foundation of insufficient information and misinformation, it is important to make effective use of this opportunity, and let more German people experience China’s development achievements, thereby achieving positive results from “proximity fostering change.”

德国对华认知虽然正在发生新的变化,但其中仍有一些积极的因素存在,在自成一体的欧盟对华政策框架下,未来德国政府不会完全与中国脱钩脱轨,违背欧洲多元主义的基本原则,更不会主动筑墙,德国的市场大门依然会向中国敞开。今年是中德建交50 周年,应以此为契机,正确理解德国对华认知的变化,以推动中德、中欧关系的良性发展。一是深刻思考德国对华认知变化所反映出的现实问题。这是现实利益的冲突和文化不对称的必然结果,应正确把握两国面临的新变化,避免不断陷入认识误区,特别是掉入“文明冲突论”的陷阱。二是要冷静应对未来德国对华认知的走向与发展,分析这种变化的深层原因,冷静应对新认知给未来中德关系发展带来的可能性冲击与挑战。三是要重视德国对华认知的变化规律。德国对华认知的变化有着深刻的社会民意基础,这种民意基础往往又被政治精英所利用。要充分认识到这一规律,更好地贴近德国现实,注重民众对华认知的形成原因,积极开展各种沟通理解与交流对话活动,做到求同存异。四是要巧妙利用德国与其他西方国家关系的发展,为中国特色大国外交打造新的空间。人类面临百年未有之变局,德国对华认知变化的同时,包括美国在内的西方盟国对华认知都在调整。虽然在应对中国崛起上有普遍共识,但西方盟国内部的裂痕也难以愈合,应尽可能营造有利于中国的国际环境。五是要有效利用德国构建“中国能力”的战略机会。德国构建“中国能力”的项目出发点是为了应对中国崛起构成的所谓威胁,通过支持中德之间开展学生交流和学术交流,支持德国人学习汉语和建立中德跨文化能力有助于更好地让德国了解中国。但由于大部分德国民众对华认知乃建立在信息不充分和信息错误基础上的间接认知,因此要有效利用这一机会,让更多的德国民众亲历中国的发展成就,达到以接近促改变的积极效果。

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王朔 (Wang Shuo)张晓玲 (Zhang Xiaoling) (2023). "Analysis of Changes in Germany’s Perceptions of China [试析德国对华认知的变化]". Interpret: China, Original work published May 20, 2022, https://interpret.csis.org/translations/analysis-of-changes-in-german-perceptions-of-china/

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