A personal look at some central differences between China and Germany | Meet the Germans | DW | 18.09.2019

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Meet the Germans

A personal look at some central differences between China and Germany

Comparing China and Germany is like comparing apples with oranges, says Megan Chua from Singapore. After living in both countries, she talks about some striking differences between the two nations.

China and Germany couldn't be more different in some central aspects of life, such as personal space and public surveillance. As a Writing and Speaking Fellow at Shanghai's branch of New York University, I have been living there for a year. However, my parents and I were born and raised in Singapore, a tropical city-state of 5 million people. When I first arrived in Shanghai, a city of now over 26 million, the Chinese concept of personal space and their attitude towards surveillance took a while getting used to.

Megan Chua in Bonn

Megan Chua in Bonn

Having previously spent some time in Germany as a university student — and most recently based in Bonn as a DW intern during my summer break — I was accustomed to something entirely different.

Read more: Meet the Germans

A sense of personal space is cultural

At about eight times the population of Berlin, no corner of Shanghai remains untouched by human activity. Human traffic is one of the most anxiety-inducing ordeals of urban life. The impact of the sheer amount of people in China's metropolises is heightened by the fact that China synchronizes its state holidays and school vacations, meaning that everyone operates on exactly the same calendar and time zone.

In metro stations, the flow of people is directed by metal barriers that resemble those in cattle farms. Since so many people are moving along at the same time, they simply can't afford to care about maintaining distance from each other.

Chinese passengers are pictured at the Hangzhou East railway station in Hangzhou city,

China's railway system deals with around 53 million passenger trips during the four-day Tomb Sweeping Day holiday

In comparison, during my first days in Freiburg, I attended an orientation session for exchange students, which focused on navigating "German etiquette in public areas." The class aimed to teach us the unspoken rules of "civility." One such rule was that we should stand at an arm's length from another person in public.

In China, however, an arm's length worth of space between two people could be seen as an invitation for others to cut the line. Especially during rush hour, skin-to-skin contact in the metro is hardly an issue for the Chinese. While in Germany I would immediately apologize for accidentally stepping on someone's toe or accidentally knocking elbows, an apology is neither offered nor expected in a similar situation in China.

Above ground, pedestrian walkways in Shanghai are shared with e-scooter drivers in a rush to deliver food. Delivery people driving their silent bikes squeeze through the gaps between pedestrians on walkways to get to their destination as quickly as possible. Orderly Germans would likely shake their heads in disapproval in such a situation. Consequently, my senses have been heightened in German public areas for fear of being told off for being cutting into someone's personal space.

Surveillance is widespread in China

Another major difference between China and Germany is the prevalence of surveillance cameras. When my German friends heard that even Shanghai's parks — normally places to unwind and relax — were extremely heavily monitored, they found it so "krass" — really "incredible." But what's really crass isn't so much being watched, but how even with a shared language and culture, Shanghai felt like another planet compared to Singapore, especially after my experiences in Germany.

CCTV cameras guard Tiananmen Square in Beijing

CCTV cameras guard Tiananmen Square in Beijing

In China, the closed-circuit television (CCTV) network will consist of 570 million cameras by 2020, according to the TechCrunch website. The government works with big private companies like Tiandy, a CCTV management solutions company, to provide surveillance cameras and consulting.

While the overall number of active surveillance cameras in Germany is unknown, the country's CCTV cameras are usually installed in places with increased human activity. According to Die Welt newspaper, Berlin had over 14,700 cameras in 2017, while Bremen was the most "unwatched" city with only 109 cameras. In train stations, there were 64,000 cameras and there are a total of 1,730 cameras in the five biggest airports in Germany, Die Welt reported.

Credit system for model behavior

To maximize the surveillance network, the Chinese government is rolling out a "Social Credit System"on a nation-wide level by next year. The Social Credit System works hand in hand with surveillance; by observing the behavior of citizens in the public realm, the government will decide how to allot social credit points to its citizens. High scores come with incentives like discounts on government services and low scores lead to punishments such as travel bans. From jay-walking and illegal parking to dumping industrial pollutants, the CCTV network picks up on these behaviors and records them in the system.

Mobiler Abrechnungsdienst deckt China ab

The Zhima Credit scoring system is similar to the system introduced by the Chinese government

"People with high scores are also encouraged to be friends with other higher scorers to increase their credibility," Shayeda Ahmed, former Visiting Academic Fellow at the Mercator Institute for Chinese Studies, said in an interview on the institute's website.

Essentially, the Social Credit System is a record-keeping system of people's "good" and "bad" deeds and their repercussions. How costly each instance of bad behavior is and how the calculations are made remain opaque. To add to its complexity, the Social Credit System is not centralized across all cities and provinces.

The Chinese government taps on the huge data sets that companies like Alibaba, Ctrip, Huawei and Tencent have collected from their customers. From monitoring personal dining preferences to holiday activities, the private sector becomes a gold mine for tracking behavioral patterns. The Chinese are therefore motivated to pay their bills on time, as well as abide by laws so as to appear trustworthy and upright. Citizens can still unsubscribe from the service, but it will be mandatory to provide data from 2020 onward.

Read more: Who's afraid of artificial intelligence in China?

Making choices

A system where citizens can choose to divulge their personal data, on the other hand, is a personal right protected by law in Germany. The country has data protection agencies in each of its 16 states. Article 10 of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany, the country's constitution, also states that "the privacy of correspondence, posts and telecommunications shall be inviolable."

Yet many Chinese I know view that differently. They are willing to trade privacy for the government's promise of convenience, safety and efficiency.

Police officers patrolling Tiananmen Square in Beijing

Police officers patrolling Tiananmen Square in Beijing

In Germany and the West, the notion of "Big Brother is watching" has been endlessly effused in the media. But it is exactly this presence of a watchman that gives many Chinese a sense of protection. 

Read more: How much do Chinese people care about privacy?

Megan Chua Shanghai

Megan Chua in Shanghai

For my part, as an expat in China, surveillance is an inevitability that I have to cope with, much like the fluctuations in air quality. If I had to choose, however, my experiences of being regularly catcalled and harassed in Freiburg and Berlin, for instance, allow me to view surveillance as a tool to feel safer when walking home alone at night. Surveillance still plays a role in creating a sense of physical security — if anything were to happen, the perpetrator would be caught.

But it should not be taken to the extreme that where and what I eat or shop for measures the worth of my existence according to the state's obscure and arbitrary standards of morals and ethics. No matter how convenient or efficient that may be for the workings of a society, there are some things that are simply not for the state to decide.

Megan Chua was an intern for DW Culture in July 2019.

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