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
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
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
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.
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.
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.”