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Chinese tourists in the German city of Trier
Chinese tourists in the German city of Trier
Nikolaus Doll

BERLIN - What is the first thing Chinese people think about when asked about Germany? Sure, Oktoberfest, the Cologne carnival, but mostly: the car industry. German automakers Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen were mentioned spontaneously by nearly 25% of Chinese people polled in a recent survey.

Asked about China, Germans made associations like “economic power” and “population explosion.”

But what do Germans and Chinese say when pressed a little deeper? A survey conducted by market research firm TNS Infratest – a first of the kind – for the Chinese communications firm Huawei revealed some interesting answers. The Chinese were overall very positive about Germany’s politics, culture, the achievements of German athletes, and above all the country’s economic performance. Germans on the other hand generally gave China lukewarm grades.

On the rating scale TNS Infratest created, Germany came away with a 76/100 and China with 51/100.

Three-fourths of Germans interviewed for the study said they saw China as an economic threat, and feared that it would “become too powerful.” For their part, only 37% of Chinese perceived Germany as a potential economic threat, and 64% spontaneously mentioned that German companies in China create new jobs.

The Chinese gave Germans their highest grades for innovation and reputation, and a “very good” for likeability and trustworthiness. They did not perceive Germany as having a very high degree of influence in the world, however, whereas Germans gave the Chinese highest grade in that category – and low grades for innovativeness and reputation, reserving particularly bad grades for trustworthiness.

Although Chinese citizens travel less to Germany than Germans do to China, the former graded their own knowledge of Germany significantly better than Germans rated their knowledge of China: 63% of German interviewees said they thought they knew very little about China.

The 1,300 interviews conducted in Germany and China also revealed that a large majority of Chinese thought that Germany played no role in their daily life, whereas Germans said China did impact their daily lives, even if it was just in terms of the large amount of media coverage China receives in Germany.

Twenty-one percent of Chinese said they used German products, while 56% of Germans used products made in China. Half of the Germans interviewed said they often went to Chinese restaurants, whereas only 3% of Chinese respondents ate any German foods on a regular basis.

The Chinese did not know much about – or were quite simply disinterested by – the subject of sports and politics in Germany although state visits and sister or twin city partnerships were deemed of interest. Another point that sparked interest was the fact that the German head of government was a woman.

With regard to sports, Germany is pretty much reduced to soccer. German premier soccer league Bundesliga games are broadcast in China, and have a fan base. But despite the lack of wider awareness about German sports achievements, three-fourths of the Chinese said they considered Germany a strong sports nation.

Cheap poor quality Chinese imports

The only area where the Chinese had any deeper knowledge of Germany was with regard to its economy. Most of the media coverage in China concerning Germany has an economic context, such as the euro crisis or the failed merger between aerospace and defense firms EADS and BAE. German firms are well known and respected in China.

The best-known firm is Siemens (99% of those interviewed in China recognized the name), followed by Volkswagen (98%), Adidas, Nivea, Metro, Bosch, Bayer and Deutsche Bank. Germany is considered one of the world’s leading economic powers – indeed the survey says, "about 25% of those interviewed believed that Germany might be the world’s foremost economic power." Germany’s economic strength is viewed favorably by the Chinese, nearly three-fourths of whom responded that they viewed it as “very positive.”

But seen from a German point of view, things look different: the study reports that a third of German interviewees associated the Chinese economy with intellectual property theft and “the Chinese copying mentality.” One in five Germans associated the Chinese economy with cheap, poor quality products or bad working conditions.

Hardly any Germans disagreed that China as an economic power will play an even larger role in the future than it does now.

The study also reveals that German politicians and business executives who participated in the survey held significantly more favorable views of China than the German population at large, perhaps because many had travelled to China and knew more about it. Business executives take a very pragmatic view of the huge Chinese market, business development in the Far East, and while there are some reservations, collaboration with Chinese partners.

German managers gave the lowest grades to China in matters of “openness,” “specialist knowledge,” and –surprisingly – “hospitality” and “affordability.”

Overall the results should cause a few frowns at Huawei: the communications company is trying arguably harder than any other Chinese firm to increase its business in Europe.

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