Berlin's China strategy: A Transcultural view
By Ulrich Sollmann  ·  2023-08-04  ·   Source: NO.32 AUGUST 10, 2023
The Chinese Duojing-Garden in Luisenpark, Mannheim, Germany, on July 14 (XINHUA)

The German Government has developed a China strategy which, on the one hand, intends to determine the bilateral political and economic relationship in concrete terms. On the other hand, this strategy emphasizes common ground within the framework of the coordinated EU-China policy. The central goals are:

• to set out the state of and perspectives on relations with China;

• to describe the possibilities for better realization in the complex relationship with China;

• to identify ways and instruments for possible cooperation and coherence between policy portfolios;

• related coordination with stakeholders in Germany, the EU and beyond.

Germany first announced it would determine a new strategy for China in January. A closer look reveals that the long-awaited strategy paper, released in mid-July, reflects Berlin's political position toward China: to be a partner, competitor and systemic rival.

The question remains as to why the strategy was announced at this particular time.

In other words, what are the occasion, motivation and function of the strategy right now?


Political strategy is not possible without strategy communication. The latter focuses entirely on the question of how to communicate one's political strategy to the relevant political institutions as well as to the people so that they understand it, accept it and act on it. In my opinion, the German communication competence in this regard is characterized, if not shaped, by three obstructive aspects.

The required well-founded, up-to-date and independent China competence, or the ability to apply knowledge about China to a whole range of situations and to place specific problems in the broader context of policy on China, should encompass all relevant areas of science, business, civil society and others. Future generations will require increased teaching of China competence. This is in clear contrast to the current polarization of opinions regarding China among the German public (media). How, then, can the necessary independent dialogue be conducted at different levels in such a way that this polarization has a chance of becoming less tense? What must politics do to not only revive but also ensure a reciprocal understanding between Germany and China?

The German Government heavily relies on the China expertise of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS). MERICS enjoys an excellent reputation in the EU. However, the institute and its staff are politically sanctioned by China. How then can one expect MERICS to provide balanced independent analysis and policy stance? [The Chinese Foreign Ministry announced sanctions on European individuals and entities including MERICS on the grounds of "severely harming China's sovereignty and interests and spreading lies and disinformation" in March 2021, in response to the EU's unilateral sanctions.—Ed]

Furthermore, what other China expertise does the German Government draw on in a complementary manner? The strategy paper offers no further indications in this regard.

The renewed China strategy intends to enable intercultural competence or to, at least, inform people of this. There is no indication of the necessary distinction between intercultural, multicultural and transcultural competence. The German China strategy neither deems this distinction necessary nor does it position itself clearly and concretely according to such a necessary distinction.

Intercultural competence refers to cultural knowledge. Multicultural competence looks particularly at the cultural perception of the respective cultural behavior and communication patterns. Transcultural competence means cultural co-creation, in this case between Germany and China. Despite all the differences, it is also about emotional and psychological resonance in the effort to achieve cohesion between the cultures, however gradual or qualitative this may be. What is ultimately to be achieved politically and diplomatically leads to a hybrid identity. This emerges or is created jointly between the two cultures, in this case between Germany and China.

Without communication, this political strategy of the German Government remains more of an aspiration. It explains how the government positions itself politically in the balance of power between the EU and China. But that is all.


Germany's China strategy is intended to help reduce dependencies and asymmetries. China, for one, is genuinely concerned about security and stability. So what are the possible similarities or differences between Germany and China in this respect?

The strategy paper does not comment on this. Nor can it comment on this, given it seems to be more of a position paper that, at least for the time being, sees no need to attach any importance to a psychological or even transcultural view.

To select just one central point, I wonder what is meant by the term "resilience," which the paper often mentions.

The word resilience derives from the Latin verb resilire, which translates as "to bounce back." In its original meaning, the term refers to the property of an object in relation to an external force that initially changes its original form. A resilient object, in this original meaning of the word, is not permanently changed by the force. So is Germany, as a system, concerned not to have to change significantly because of China's global influence?

Psychology looks at the resilience of the individual in relation to drastic experiences: In this context, resilience does not primarily mean the return to the status quo before the external drastic disturbance. Rather, the focus is on adapting to the new circumstances while maintaining a high quality of life.

In a social system, conscious, people-created designs are of essential importance. Accordingly, the adaptive dimension of resilience, which has already been emphasized in psychology, is also added to the narrative of social science considerations. Resilience thus no longer necessarily refers to the ability of a system to return to its former state after a short deviation. Rather, adaptive resilience focuses on the ability to make a transition to a possibly new state that is no less satisfactory than the previous state.

In accordance with the social science understanding of the term resilience, a definition in the context of economic policy must necessarily include the adaptive dimension and must not be limited to a static understanding in the sense of a return to the state before the disruption.

People and the systems they shape are characterized by the ability to adapt, to learn and to manage crises in a creative way. This requirement applies in a special way to economic systems, which are in any case subject to constant change due to innovations and growth processes shaped by people.

This opens up an important field of communication with relevant social and economic stakeholders for Germany's strategy paper.

An economically successful and politically significant economy such as Germany represents a system that is determined by a multitude of actors at different levels and their interaction. Social contexts and the decision-making processes of the political system play just as important a role as the decision-making behavior of individuals as voters, consumers or entrepreneurs. A comprehensive definition must include all these different levels.

The paper instead lacks sufficient transparency about different types of resilience, about decisive factors that favor or limit resilience.

Last but not least, characteristics of independent analysis and political action must flow into the public communication of the China strategy in such a way that both a related previous learning process and requirements for future learning become visible. 

The author is a researcher of transcultural communication and a guest professor at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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