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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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Globalization Takes A New Turn, Away From China

China is still a manufacturing juggernaut and a growing power, but companies are looking for alternatives as Chinese labor costs continue to rise — as do geopolitical tensions with Beijing.

Photo of a woman working at a motorbike factory in China's Yunnan Province.

A woman works at a motorbike factory in China's Yunnan Province.

Pierre Haski


PARIS — What were the representatives of dozens of large American companies doing in Vietnam these past few days?

A few days earlier, a delegation of foreign company chiefs currently based in China were being welcomed by business and government leaders in Mexico.

Then there was Foxconn, Apple's Taiwanese subcontractor, which signed an investment deal in the Indian state of Telangana, enabling the creation of 100,000 jobs. You read that right: 100,000 jobs.

What these three examples have in common is the frantic search for production sites — other than China!

For the past quarter century, China has borne the crown of the "world's factory," manufacturing the parts and products that the rest of the planet needs. Billionaire Jack Ma's Alibaba.com platform is based on this principle: if you are a manufacturer and you are looking for cheap ball bearings, or if you are looking for the cheapest way to produce socks or computers, Alibaba will provide you with a solution among the jungle of factories in Shenzhen or Dongguan, in southern China.

All of this is still not over, but the ebb is well underway.

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