Why Chinese Students Are Flocking To Germany

Germany's prestigious technical universities have become a magnet for Chinese students. But not all adjust well, while German's intelligence agency suspect some are spies.

Germany has approximately 25,500 students from China.
Germany has approximately 25,500 students from China.
Kevin Schrein

MUNICH — On the Technical University of Munich (TUM) campus, it smells of grilled sausage and doner kebab. Students lined up in front of two fast food joints are complaining of tough exams. Li Ying, full-cheeked, with black hair, pays no attention and resolutely heads towards a large building. The 24-year-old Masters student in computer science is in his third semester. It’s a tough curriculum with a lot of math, so he has to buck up. There’s still work to do.

Ying earned his Bachelor degree from Wuhan University in China. That’s where he met a German exchange student who raved about "German engineering," and the good technical universities like Munich's TUM. Ying applied and was accepted. He says he likes his study program, which involves a considerable amount of practical work and costs nothing.

"In my country, German universities have an excellent reputation," he says.

Germany right now has more students from China, approximately 25,500, than from any other foreign country. The Chinese, in fact, have been heading the list for years, according to the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). They frequently sign up for subjects such as mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. But economics is also popular.

"Two thirds of the Chinese students come to get their Masters degree," says Thomas Schmidt-Dörr, the director of DAAD’s Beijing office.

But does German/Chinese cooperation work? Are the Chinese shedding their reputation as copiers of products and subsequent competitors? Universities, in any case, have adjusted to the many Chinese students. That's particularly true of the technical universities, which actively recruit them and often forge partnerships with Chinese universities.

The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), for example, has been teamed up with the Beijing Institute of Technology since 2012. Together they select talented students who speak good German to go study in Germany. Nearly every university with international connections offers special consultations and mentor programs. This year, Chinese Moon Festival festivities were held in TUM’s largest auditorium.

Guidance required

Not all of the Chinese enrolled at German universities are geniuses. There are the high flyers, but there are also problem cases. According to the association of nine technical universities, TU9, the Chinese students are as varied as the German ones.

KIT's Carsten Proppe is familiar with the academic performance of the Chinese. When the dean of the mechanical engineering faculty is due to start his lecture at 8 a.m. and arrives at 7:45 a.m., the Chinese students are already there. They sit in the first row or middle of the lecture hall, books to their left, pad of paper to their right. "The German students trundle in around 8 a.m. or later," he says grinning.

Proppe perceives the Chinese students as motivated and hard-working. But they don’t necessarily get better grades. The dean has notices differences in the way Chinese and German students approach their Bachelor and Masters theses. While the Chinese work with focus in a structured way, "they often need guidance," he says. German and other European students, in contrast, may go a couple of weeks without supervision, "but then they surprise you with an intelligent solution."

Somtimes China and Germany are two worlds that just don’t adjust well to each other. Jianfen Chen, a Chinese man who came to Heidelberg 15 years ago to study economics, says he struggled with how direct Germans tend to be. "They say what they think, and I had to get used to that," he says.

But there are other things about Germans, such as their openness and thoroughness, that Chen really appreciates. "Everything functions reliably," he says. Recently Chen teamed up with a group in Heidelberg called the GCC, a student-led association that helps fellow students get started in Germany "so that they learn about the new culture quickly."

Lingering suspicions

Many German companies have embraced Chinese students as well. For medium-sized and large companies, business in Asia is top priority. As such, there is a real interest in qualified, international graduates, according to the German Rectors’ Conference. Some companies agree. "China is a market we're keen to tap," says Torsten Fiddelke, press spokesman for the ZF Group in Friedrichshafen. "A varied team with different cultural backgrounds is tremendously important."

German intelligence, on the other hand, has concerns about the presence of so many Chinese students. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution suspects some are spying for their country. According to the secret service, Chinese students are obliged on entering Germany to register with their embassy or consulate. They are encouraged to take part regularly in embassy get-togethers. Most of them do. The Chinese government, therefore, knows exactly where each student is studying and who is doing a traineeship to fulfill the practical requirements of their study course. If necessary, these students could be recruited by the Chinese government, intelligence officials warn.

Some companies share this concern. "In personal exchanges, these companies are saying they are more cautious with Chinese students," says Professor Proppe.

Li Ying, the computer science student from Munich, has heard that German companies are worried. "I’m not here to spy," he says. Ying can imagine working in Germany. Doing so would also be good for his resume, he believes. There's only one problem: German cuisine. "It just doesn’t taste good to me," he admits.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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