How can Germany, China bridge perception gap?

Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/7 10:33:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Editor's Note:

When it comes to Germany's perspective on China, negative views would pop out in most cases. But Gunter Schoech (Schoech), founder and managing director of market research and consulting company Débrouillage Ltd. has a different take. His articles, carrying an objective comprehension of China-related news stories on Zhihu, a Quora-like question-and-answer website in China, have gone viral recently. What is his personal impression of China? What does he think causes mutual misunderstanding and how can such problems be solved? Schoech shared his thoughts on these issues in a written interview with Global Times (GT) reporter Li Aixin.

GT: What is your personal impression of the changes in Chinese society since you first came here in 2004?

The deepest change is the ever increasing opening-up. The fact that I can give this interview on Chinese State media is probably quite unbelievable to most Germans. 

In 2004 I worked for Siemens, inventor of the electrical parts of the Maglev train. Why did I have to come to Shanghai to see it in operation? I had been to the German test track before, but we lack the vision and consensus today for most major infrastructure projects.

GT: What percent of German people do you think have the right understanding of China?

Personally, I know many people who agree with me, and they typically have one thing in common: They have been to China and have gotten to know local Chinese. Many miss China a lot when they come home, e.g. after working in China for a few years. Two of my better friends are married to Chinese people. They all share my frustration that the general knowledge is so poor and full of prejudice. But overall, their number is small. 

GT: You said that when you share your insight about China with people around you, they don't share your enthusiasm and positive view at all; what do you think is the root cause for this?

Multiple reasons: The image is outdated, not quite the opium wars, but maybe China in 1995. China changes so fast. Why do we still call the world's second largest economy an "emerging market?" The old block thinking of democratic market economy vs. communist planned economy, concerns about human rights, intellectual property theft, cheap competitive products based on sweat shops and pollution, loss of jobs to China and many other stereotypes. All contain a grain of truth, but are usually vastly exaggerated, especially when compared to the reality of our Western countries, and all the exploitation, violence, and environmental damage in our own past and present.

I believe there is a deeper root cause that people don't voice: They see the spectacular development of China over 4 decades with secret fear, admiration, and jealousy. They need to find something fundamentally bad about China in order to appease their feelings. They might say, "Yes, BUT there is no individual freedom, horrible smog, surveillance everywhere, it's all built on debt…" Sometimes, I feel some people would even like to see China fail, at least fall into recession. For decades, people suspect that the social inequalities cannot last much longer and must inevitably lead to major changes.

Our media serve and reinforce this impression. They are widely regarded as objective, trustworthy, and politically independent, but I must say that when it comes to China, my personal experience is different. Their reporting is no "fake news," but is deliberately one-sided, very selective, and reinforces the bad image while not reporting the positive. China is huge; I can always find bad news if I want to.

GT: Could you please name one culture shock between China and Germany that influences you the most when you are working in China?

I expected business partners in a planned economy to do a lot of planning. I found the opposite. Due to endless opportunities, people change their mind quickly and don't like long term plans. We like to say, "No meeting without an agenda." We then share ahead of time, and expose our thinking. Chinese like to meet face to face, build personal trust, and then something good can happen. They don't like to discuss their reasoning, and will very rarely explain if and why they changed their mind. 

GT: German companies in China would normally organize training programs to help businesses adapt to the Chinese environment. What do they usually focus on in such programs? Is there anything that you find missing in the programs about understanding China?

Most programs focus on basic rules or decency. That is far from sufficient. Chinese and Westerners can have quite different ways of thinking, and I have witnessed an endless number of misunderstandings. It is essential for both sides to understand that all what "goes without saying" for you, might in fact be totally different in the other country. Over-communicating is needed. Having tried hard for 14 years, I know I am still far from perfect, but I managed to give a personal training to a friend and event manager who was in the middle of a project for several months in China. He said it opened his eyes, and he understood a lot of experiences in hindsight, and acts more successfully now.

GT: Have you found any Chinese misunderstandings about Germany or German people?

Many. I once took some of my Chinese employees to an industrial fair in our capital Berlin. Later, we did some sightseeing of the city and palaces of the Prussian kings. In the end, I asked what impressed them the most. One educated engineer (speaks some German, is very interested in global history), said: "I can't believe Berlin is so poor." It's true, Berlin has huge debts and old infrastructure. Many people globally view Germany as rich, high tech, clean, safe etc. Some of these views are also outdated.

GT: Do you have any suggestion to reduce misunderstanding between the two sides?

I encourage as much personal exchange as possible. High school or university student exchanges like I did with the USA and Spain. This will lead to personal friendships, even family ties. Once the other side has a face and a name, understanding follows.

Also, I have published 140 answers on Zhihu, mainly about our relations, and often a lively, public discussion ensued. Overall, people are quite reasonable, and I often learn from them too. If I look at my own very loyal Chinese workforce, I am proud to say that fruitful collaboration is possible if both sides want it. Chinese have taken more steps towards the West than the other way around, learning languages, studying overseas. Only 5000 high school students learn Chinese in Germany, which is mainly due to the image of China in Germany. It is a vicious cycle we must break.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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