China and the World

Das ist nicht gut

German press turns negative on China’s rise


A more uneasy relationship?

In the German imagination, an alptraum (the word for ‘nightmare’) involves a mythical creature called the Alp.

Some folklore has it that the Alp terrifies sleepers by sitting on their chests, and as they wake they have a sensibility of paralysis. Some says it sucks blood from the nipples of sleeping men and young children to regenerate its own powers. Grotesque and macabre concepts are what Germans thus associate with a bad night of sleep.

And a sense of nightmarishness seems to have got into the German press where China is concerned. The local media is portraying the Middle Kingdom’s rise as an existential threat to Europe’s largest economy.

Take China’s recent success in cloning monkeys (for more see this week’s “Healthcare” section). “The West has to be worried,” writes Moritz Eichhorn, a political editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). Drawing parallels between the primate replicas and European discomfort over the Soviet Union’s space programmes of the 1950s, Eichhorn said the “concern” of the West, at its root, is not only about technology and economics, but whose political system is more superior – the West’s liberal individualism or the authoritarian collectivism practiced in countries like Russia and China.

And in another long FAZ feature last month – this time looking at Tencent’s push to promote WeChat in Germany – the social media application was simply referred to as “China’s surveillance app”. The newspaper not only stressed what it viewed as the link between Tencent and the Chinese government, but added that the Shenzhen-based tech giant is “one of China’s most mysterious corporations” given it had never granted foreign journalists access to any of its annual conferences. (That claim runs counter to the fact that the earnings call of the Hong Kong-listed company draws reporters from around the world every quarter.)

FAZ also said Tencent’s chairman Pony Ma had never given any interviews and made his residence a secret because tycoons are prone to “disappear” under President Xi Jinping’s regime. And the FAZ’s theme of China as a totalitarian state powered by technology is reinforced by podcasts on its website which have titles like “Total control: China relies on facial recognition” and “Big Brother lives in China”.

Düsseldorf-based business paper The Handelsblatt, likewise, has drawn attention to the draconian aspects of China by running multiple articles on Beijing’s potential banning of virtual private networks (VPNs). That framed other media narratives that discussed China’s growing technological prowess as a result of Beijing’s “unfair policy” to stifle foreign competition.

Germany’s backlash against China has grown in tandem with the latter’s cross-border investments into prized local assets, such as robotics firm Kuka. Chinese buyers ploughed €12.1 billion ($14.96 billion) into German companies last year, up from just €100 million seven years ago, according to the Cologne Institute for Economic Research.

Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a fellow at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, argued in the New York Times that Germany should resist China’s “influence buying”. Apart from risking technology-transfer, China’s shopping spree might also increase its power to meddle with Germany’s “hard-earned democracy” said Tatlow.

“It is urgently necessary that we get harsher legal measures throughout the EU this year in order to counteract takeover fantasies, as well as draining of technology and know-how effectively,” Matthias Machnig, Germany’s state secretary for economic affairs, told Welt am Sonntag in an interview published on January 28. His call for harsher measures was thought to be mainly referencing China.

Just as significant as some of the negative themes in the German press – namely China’s authoritarian governance, its looming technological threat and Beijing’s attempts to gain political control through investments (one newspaper cited Chinese influence in Africa) – is what has been omitted: topics about China that are more positive. WiC’s analysis of the main German newspapers did not find mention of Beijing’s successes in areas like poverty alleviation or improving air quality in the country’s capital, for instance.

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