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A book fair scandal without consequences

April 30, 2010

German views of China fluctuate between admiration and fear. But as mutual contacts have increased, opinions are bound to become more differentiated.

Bei Ling's invitation to the Frankfurt book fair was recalled after China exercised pressure
Bei Ling's invitation to the Frankfurt book fair was recalled after China exercised pressureImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Many Germans still remember what happened at the Frankfurt book fair last year. China was the guest of honor and wanted to present itself as a country rich in culture. But even before the event, it was clear it was going to be fraught with difficulty. After all, the German organizers of the book fair had invited authors critical of the Chinese government. This caused an uproar among the Chinese delegation, and on several occasions led to arguments between the Germans and the Chinese about the presence of dissidents. This created a cycle of walk-outs and apologies.

Thomas Zimmer, professor at Cologne University, says China presented itself more as a dictator than as a nation of culture. "I believe they miscalculated the way people here in Germany would react." He says China was too egocentric and paid little attention to the wishes of the German public.

Though it took place far away from China, Chinese censorship was unavoidable in Frankfurt
Though it took place far away from China, Chinese censorship was unavoidable in FrankfurtImage: DW

China's negative image

From the book fair scandal to reports on censorship on the internet and human rights abuses, China usually makes negative headlines in Germany. But does that mean Germans have a purely negative image of China?

According to results of the British opinion research consultancy, GlobeScan, the answer is: yes. The poll, commissioned by the BBC, found that 71 percent of Germans think China has a negative influence on the world. But journalist and China expert Dagmar Lorenz says one shouldn't overgeneralize. "In Germany differing opinions can coexist. If, for example, people criticize Chinese policy towards Tibet or censorship of press and literature, it has nothing to do with the Chinese people or Chinese culture."

Yellow danger or the land of smiles?

Admiration, rejection and fear – for centuries German opinion of China has ping-ponged back and forth between these extremes. During the period of the enlightenment, China was portrayed as an exotic place ruled by rationality, morality and justice. That started changing around the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, when China was considered to be hopelessly underdeveloped, an "embalmed mummy" or even the "yellow peril."

Until China opened its doors to the world at the end of the 1970s, Germany's impression of China had been inspired by stereotypes and characterised by a lack of knowledge about a distant and foreign country, says Thomas Zimmer. "20, 30 years ago it was much easier for China to shape people's impressions by filtering the information it gave to the world. Today our knowledge about China and what happens there is much more diverse."

Never so close

Never in history have so many Germans and Chinese lived, studied and worked together as today. There are now around 80,000 Chinese people living in Germany. Germans go to China – on business, to study or on vacation and gain their own impressions of the country. Last year alone, half a million Chinese tourists came to Germany. Thomas Zimmer thinks all this interaction definitely has an influence on how Germans see China. "I think Germans think fairly positively about China. On the other hand, other issues do play a role, for instance, the China-Tibet issue, minority groups in China in general. These aspects also influence people's opinion, so I think people have a very objective perspective of what China is doing."

At the Expo, China will be presenting itself to the world for six months. Many Germans will be flying to the event in Shanghai. TV stations and newspapers will be reporting there and transmitting images of China to the rest of the world including Germany. A good opportunity for Germans to get to know China better.

Author: Christoph Ricking / sb
Editor: Grahame Lucas