China cannot be ignored

At the Sino-German Cooperation Conference, representatives of Chinese institutio

At the Sino-German Cooperation Conference, representatives of Chinese institutions showed a great deal of interest in an exchange of information and experience with Münster University’s press officer, Norbert Robers (left). © private

The figures speak for themselves. It is estimated that state expenditure for research and development in China have increased tenfold since 2000. At the same time, in no other country in the world do researchers publish more scientific publications - as was shown in an analysis of around 17 million articles published between 2013 and 2018. China appears to be determined to assume global power status - not only politically and economically, but also in the field of science. At any rate, there will be no lack of finance or third-party funding, running into billions. “China wants to play in the top league in as many areas of research as possible,” says Dr. Karin Zach, Director of the Sino-German Center for Research in Beijing which was set up by the German Research Foundation. China, she says, has identified 16 “mega-fields” and is bringing back top-level researchers from abroad; and the 42 Chinese elite universities are ideally equipped. “The country’s leaders have discovered research as an issue for the future,” adds a German diplomat in Beijing. “Many European universities and researchers have known for a long time that China cannot be ignored.”

This is certainly true. Numerous researchers, institutes and university departments at Münster have had intensive contacts with China for many years now: the variety of cooperations between China and Münster University is wide and includes natural scientists, theologists, battery researchers, geologists, mathematicians, business economists, physicians and philosophers. Physicist and nanotechnology expert Prof. Harald Fuchs has been involved in this development right from the beginning. He coordinated the first Sino-German Transregio Collaborative Research Centre; he is one of the founding members of the Herbert Gleiter Institute in Nanjing; he was involved in a declaration on basic research published jointly by the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Chinese Academy of Sciences; and just a few months ago the Chinese government presented him with the “Friendship Award”, one of the highest honours that can be bestowed upon foreign experts. Fuchs, too, is impressed by the dynamism of the Chinese scientific system, in particular in the material sciences, in quantum systems and in artificial intelligence. “Previously, China was heavily focused on applications, but today the country is developing into a serious rival in basic research in individual fields,” he comments. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see a Nobel prize-winner from China in the next three to five years.”

Chinese post-docs’ level of knowledge is high, says Fuchs. They are distinctly ambitious, he adds, because they know that nowadays they can earn good money with the skills they acquire. Most of them have clear aims in life: a professorship and, ideally, membership of an Academy of Sciences - because this means not only an entitlement to life-long laboratory facilities: it also represents a decisive preliminary step for their further careers. Prof. Susanne Günthner, who worked for five years at various universities in China from 1983 onwards and has been head of the Department of German Studies’ Partnership with Xi’an International Studies University in western China since 2017, is full of praise for Chinese students who are, she says, “motivated, eager to learn and very fond of discussions”.

Like it or not, anyone who only talks about China’s scientific ambitions cannot avoid the issue of the alleged or actual political influence in the authoritarian system. While some people argue in a relatively guarded fashion, (“Anyone who is good is a member of the Party”), others warn against naivety. “You need to be aware of who you’re talking to and sharing your knowledge with,” Karin Zach stresses. At the same time she does not share the, as she puts it, “downright hysteria” relating to the issue of industrial espionage. Harald Fuchs agrees: “Being aware of the potentially sensitive nature of what you talk about is always a good idea - but I have to say that I know of no example of ideas being stolen in the field of basic research.”

German diplomats have a different view of China. “Science, too, is subservient to state ideology,” says a China expert in the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs who prefers to remain anonymous. In his view, what this means specifically is “that there is no academic freedom at all”, that in the academic world the Party pursues the principal of “total control”, that “nothing is left to chance” in exchanges of students and researchers, with Party loyalty playing a central role, and that ultimately the country’s strong interest in questions relating to physics and to artificial intelligence is geared to other - i.e. military and political - applications. “We can only urgently recommend that, in the case of joint projects, clear agreements are made which can be terminated immediately if they are infringed.”

The influence of the state and the thirst for knowledge are also a dominant theme among business representatives seeking contacts with Chinese companies at the Sino-German Cooperation & Communication Conference 2019 held in the state-owned Shandong Hotel in Jinan. For two days, the 700 or so people attending the conference sound out the possibilities for cooperation and investment. “I don’t share the reservations some people have about German companies being sucked dry,” says Tim Wenniges, Executive Director of the Metalworking and Electrical Industries Association for the State of Baden-Württemberg in his opening speech, mentioning that 8,000 German companies are now present in China.

In the afternoon the hosts organise a sort of speed dating in the Golden Hall, at which participants can get to know each other and sound out mutual interests. Tang Riling, who works for a local “Innovation Center”, visits the Münster University table D7 and underlines her great interest in collaborating with German universities in the fields of biomedicine, electrical engineering and artificial intelligence. Something she finds particularly attractive is what she describes as the “outstanding German system of vocational training”. And what does she think of when she hears the name ‘Germany’- She smiles and says, “I think of the quality of German automobiles.”

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