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Improving Europe’s China Competence

On the Significance of China Competence for German and European Policy on China

SWP Comment 2020/C 40, 30.07.2020, 4 Seiten



Dealing with China is not only about finding answers to urgent problems in politics, business, or technology. Rather, a system of European China competence must be established that ensures long-term capacity for action. It is crucial to locate this task at the nexus of foreign and education policy. The development of China competence through education should therefore be part of Europe’s China strategy.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, atti­tudes towards the Chinese government under Xi Jinping had already changed con­siderably in Germany and Europe. A mean­ingful example of this is the European Commission’s Strategic Outlook of 12 March 2019, which no longer describes China as a developing country, but as a key global player and leading technological power. The European Commission emphasises that although China is a cooperation and nego­tiation partner as well as an economic com­petitor, it is also a systemic rival, primarily because of its government model.

During the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, this critical attitude towards China has increased significantly in politics, the press, and the think tank community. It is linked to growing doubts about Beijing’s political credibility. This has not only been fuelled by the decision of the National People’s Congress to pass the national secu­rity law for Hong Kong at the end of May 2020, but also by a whole series of political events. Criticism of the actions of the Chi­nese authorities at the beginning of the Wuhan pandemic is particularly pronounced.

On the one hand, China’s economic significance for Germany and Europe is increasing. On the other hand, however, there is growing uncertainty about the global activities of Chinese actors and the increasingly complex thematic contexts in dealing with China. The combination of the two has long revealed that more China competence is indispensable. The German government already responded to this realisation with the (now expired) “China Strategy of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) 2015–2020”. However, the measures developed in this strategy primarily concern science and research. It is true that 11 interesting interdisciplinary projects have been devel­oped at German universities since 2016 within the framework of one funding meas­ure. But the question remains as to what extent these funding lines can develop “a broader China competence in Germany”.

Nexus of Foreign and Education Policy

Education and foreign policy are natural allies in developing China competence. In this context, it is therefore not productive to consider them separately. However, the federal structure of the education system in Germany must always be taken into account when promoting China competence, because the ministries of education and culture of the Länder (federal states) are the key to implementation. The first promising approaches to cooperation have already been made. A joint initiative by the BMBF, the Federal Foreign Office, and the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder was launched in 2017. It supported the study China kennen, China können” (2018), which was the first comprehensive survey of China competence in Germany. The study not only focused on science and research, but also on the current state of school education, which is at least as im­portant as university-level education for a strategic approach. The “Working Group on China Competence in Schools and Edu­cation” was associated with the aforementioned initiative. Based on the findings of the study, it developed recommendations for implementation in the two main types of schools in Germany: general and voca­tional. At the end of 2019, a civil society actor, Stiftung Mercator, with the support of the initiative partners, set up an educa­tion network to promote China competence in schools. Areas of focus are Chinese lan­guage instruction, China as a subject topic in classes, and student exchange.

The question now is how to proceed, and whether the efforts for more China compe­tence should become much more strategic, and above all transnational. A deeper understanding of China requires even more direct and indirect engagement with the country. Only then will it be pos­sible to develop effective instruments and a self-confident attitude that is based on reciprocity. The foundations for the promo­tion of China competence must be laid not only at universities and in centres of excel­lence, but also in society as a whole, and they must be anchored in the national – and especially the European – education sector. Without an intensive Europe-wide development of China competence across all sectors, it will not be possible to differ­entiate between relations with China as a partner, competitor, and rival in Germany and, above all, in Europe in the long term.

Capacity for Action through China Competence

China competence in politics has a different focus than in economic or technological contexts. However, all variants are ideally based on a good command of the language, sound knowledge and expertise of China, and the ability to communicate interculturally.

Firstly, China competence stands for 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. For example, experience in the economic sector with China usually remains sector-specific and is therefore not generally transferable to other areas. Secondly, intercultural competence is a necessary requirement to engage in dia­logue, especially under conditions of sys­temic competition. This should not be equated with mastering a bag of tricks or business etiquette, but above all includes the ability to reconstitute the horizon of interpretations in recognising the differences between the systems. A detailed look, for example, at the complex political func­tioning of the state and party apparatus protects both against the influence of propa­ganda campaigns and the oversimplified friend–foe scheme of “innocent” Chinese people on the one hand, and “cunning” party officials on the other. This helps in seeing things objectively and finding solu­tions that do justice to the complexities of German-Chinese and European-Chinese relations and can also counteract growing levels of mistrust.

Thirdly, China competence must start with school education. University studies and vocational training as well as appro­priately supported student exchange pro­grammes can create well-founded China competence. These approaches are valuable, but they alone hardly contribute towards anchoring China expertise in society on a broad level. The number of first-year stu­dents in Chinese studies has been declining for years – in 2016/17 the number was around 500 in Germany, even though there are more and more courses of study being offered in contemporary Chinese studies. The development is similar in the United Kingdom, for example. Vocational educa­tion and training in Germany currently does not offer any additional Chinese-relat­ed qualifications with language train­ing that goes beyond a basic level.

School Education As a Corner­stone of China Competence

The development of China competence must start with school education. Secondary-level education lends itself to this pur­pose. Intercultural competence is the key objective of Chinese lessons at school. In recent years it has been expanded structurally, albeit not significantly in terms of numbers. Here, precisely those skills are taught that are needed in Germany and Europe on a much broader societal basis: language skills (up to a level of independent language use if the course is of an appropriate duration) and substantial socio-cul­tural orientational knowledge about China. However, the number of pupils attending Chinese courses in schools has remained low for years – around 5,000. By contrast, some 7 million pupils in general education schools in Germany learn English (the uni­versal lingua franca), 1.4 million French, and as many as 464,000 Spanish. Hardly any use has been made so far of the poten­tial of specialised instruction to teach the approximately 5.3 million secondary school pupils in Germany about China, for exam­ple in the subjects of politics, geography, economics, or history.

Last but not least, China competence in the school education sector must be devel­oped financially and ideologically independent of the Chinese state. Linguistic and cultural offerings from the Chinese side – in the sense of a cultural foreign policy, as pursued by Germany and many other coun­tries – should be welcomed as a supplement. However, European nations must claim responsibility for “basic education” themselves. Not only that: In solidarity with European Union (EU) member states, this basic education should be implemented and financed at the European level, for example by setting up a “European Educa­tion Fund for Chinese Literacy”. In this respect, too, European robustness cannot be developed by Germany alone, but through cooperation at the European level. Euro­pean countries that are financially weaker are often not even able to offer chairs of sinology or language instruction at univer­sities, let alone Chinese lessons in schools.

Even though a complete inventory of the existing China competence in Europe is not yet available, there is likely at present not a single European country that can provide adequate educational opportunities with respect to China through its own national responsibility. In the medium term, this deficit will impair Europe’s capacity to act autonomously with regard to China.

A European Education Initiative for China Competence

Ultimately, therefore, it is not enough to focus solely on Germany in this matter. “China” has long since arrived in Europe and is becoming increasingly assertive and self-confident. This is why Europe is looking for a common stance and a “more robust Euro­pean strategy”, as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell recently emphasised. Conse­quently, promoting China competence is a challenge not only for Germany, but for Europe as a whole – whether in economic or political negotiations, diplomacy and information-gathering, or in order to count­er propaganda and disinformation. Even in the United States, the lack of China compe­tence – and the dangers that may arise from this – are currently being discussed.

Without the establishment of a sustain­able, Europe-wide China competence sys­tem and intensive promotion of it, there will be a lack of expertise on China in the foreseeable future. However, a European education initiative for China competence as part of Europe’s China strategy cannot, and should not, start with standards and binding structures, because education policy is the domain of the individual member states. However, the EU already has a broad-based education platform with elements on which a China competence initiative could be based, for example the EU policy of multilingualism. Existing popular pro­grammes such as Erasmus+ also do not limit the sovereignty of individual countries.

A first sub-package should include the following fields of action: information, net­working of actors, and intensive dialogues on China education in Europe with exam­ples of good practice. The long-overdue assessment of Chinese language instruction in schools and universities throughout Europe should be part of this component. A few years ago, a project group of lan­guage experts from various European coun­tries, funded by the European Commission, worked on the Common European Frame­work of Reference for Languages and its applicability to the Chinese language. A similar project could serve the networking and exchange of information on Chi­nese language instruction at the European level and develop viable structures for this purpose.

The content of a second sub-package should be to design, implement, and evalu­ate concrete offers with regard to educational and curriculum development and ex­change formats. Conceivable, for exam­ple, are cooperations in which mixed groups of European students travel to China, and then in return meet with Chi­nese students in individual European countries. This model already works in a similar way for providers of individual exchanges, but it could be expanded con­siderably as part of an integrated EU project. Both packages together can establish a European education initiative for China competence and thus contribute towards strengthening the cohe­sion of the EU and towards advancing Euro­pean autonomy in dealing with China.

Andrea Frenzel is Research Assistant at the Asia Division at SWP.
Dr Nadine Godehardt is Deputy Head of the Asia Division at SWP.

© Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 2020


Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik

ISSN 1861-1761

(English version of SWP‑Aktuell 59/2020)