A Chinese Century
China’s reform and opening-up policy has brought what many generations had toiled for – prosperity, security, and their country’s rightful place in the world.
For me, China’s reform and opening-up policy, which celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2023, is not an abstract concept. As a child, I spent a few weeks in China with my parents in the mid-1980s. Then in 2011, I made a four-week trip, and in January 2017, I flew in again for a job interview, followed by a mini holiday. And I’ve been working in China since November 2017. However, it would be presumptuous to say I know China. My Chinese is far too poor for that and the country is far too big for that. But I try to listen carefully and observe closely. I learn from my Chinese friends, colleagues and seniors.
We can learn a lot from each other. This intercultural communication is very fruitful. The Chinese are different from Germans, but on the other hand, they are also very similar. And there is no better time than now to celebrate China-Germany friendship on a diplomatic, economic and personal level. China is extremely attractive to Germans and vice versa.
To describe the past 45 years of reform and opening-up, you have to use Star Trek vocabulary: China has been traveling at warp speed. It has often been described how many hundreds of millions of people China has lifted out of poverty and how tremendously China’s economy has grown. That is all true. China has also transformed itself from the world’s factory into a hi-tech country with supercomputers, punctual high-speed trains, its own space program, respectable car manufacturers and mountains of patentable ideas. The 1.4 billion Chinese are witness to this development. Every Chinese family can tell its own story of this amazing development.
But did it all just happen by itself with a few reforms and a little opening up? No, it needs more than that. There is no other country in the world that has achieved comparable development. With its systematic program, China has even eclipsed the German economic miracle of the post-war period – which brings us back to the similarities between these nations: the Chinese and Germans are able to work hard without talking much.
Many studies prove that conscientiousness and intelligence are the main reasons for professional success. In my opinion, there is a self-similarity in political systems: the way things are done in families is often the way they are done at the top level. I think that China is very clever and very conscientious. The extraordinary development of the past half century cannot be explained only by the hunger of a people who had to survive droughts, floods, earthquakes and invasions and longed for a better future.
No, these people also always had the community in mind and were prepared to work steadily and conscientiously toward the greater goal – moderate prosperity and peace – even though they did not experience great progress in their own lifetime. Under the visionary leadership of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, however, this goal came much closer than the Chinese could ever have dreamed of.
I have many Chinese friends in Berlin and we often meet up for coffee and a chat. They are enthusiastic about everything that is happening in their country. The discussions triggered by China’s development are often very passionate. My friends talk to me about e-commerce, economic and technological developments, the rise of famous Chinese brands, such as Huawei, the high-speed train records and the government’s determination and efforts to fight corruption.
China is beginning to play a leading role in many areas, and is becoming the market leader. This is making the Chinese abroad proud. The Chinese are patriotic in a pleasant way. In the eyes of my Chinese friends, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a symbol of national renewal. The 2008 Summer Olympics and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing also showed the Chinese that China is in the process of finding its rightful place in the world.
My friend Ming said, “China is making efforts to find a common development path with the world, as shown by the initiatives China is leading or participating in, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS and BRI. The most pressing issue at the moment is to protect the environment and create a sustainable growth model.” It’s all exciting in the eyes of Ming, who has worked hard to own property in Berlin.
When I returned to this magical country in 2017 after six years, without realizing at the time that I might be staying forever, I probably had the best professional start for a curious newcomer: I was an editor and reporter for the German division of the China Media Group and I wrote and made videos on the unknown and curious from German eyes. I also got to know the country and its people a little better.
A striking feature of the comprehensive social, economic, and political transformation is China’s enormous economic upswing with growth rates of more than five percent for decades. The opening of the country to foreign investors and the focus on international trade have made China one of the largest economies in the world. Some analysts believe that China could even take the top spot in less than 10 years. Economic growth has created millions of jobs, eradicated absolute poverty and significantly improved the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people.
These improvements can also be seen in the little things. When I am woken up by my mobile phone in the morning, the first thing I do is to pick up my phone and have a quick look through it. My Huawei mobile phone beeps and notifies me throughout the day.
In Germany, people usually use WhatsApp and some compare it to WeChat. I tell them scoffingly, “Whats-App is like brain cells in a petri dish, but WeChat is the brain.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there are indeed big differences in the functionality of the two apps. In China, I can do many things with WeChat alone, such as chatting, posting videos, getting information in groups, renting bicycles, booking flights or trains, ordering food, or paying for electricity. It’s not for nothing that Elon Musk cited WeChat as a model for the planned transformation of X, formerly Twitter, into an “omni-app” that can do everything. Well, China is already ahead of Musk in this respect – certainly a welcome side effect of the many reforms.
I must have used WeChat thousands of times to hire one of the indestructible bikes from various providers, which are parked in numerous special zones. All I have to do is to scan a QR code with WeChat or AliPay, and I can then ride to work or the park for the equivalent of 20 to 50 cents. During my first years in China, 2017 and 2018, there was nothing comparable in Europe. China’s path from factory to think tank has been shorter than the greatest optimists could have thought. Today, “Made in China” is being copied. Who would have thought of that?
Before I go to bed, I check how much my contacts have walked. If you want, you can activate your “pedometer” and measure how many steps you have taken for fun. My father had the right instinct almost 40 years ago. On a trip to China, he said to another foreign tourist, “The next century or even the new millennium belongs to China.” The tourist laughed and said, “It won’t be easy.” Forty years later, some countries have started to talk about the “China threat.”
The industriousness and enterprising spirit of the Chinese shock the part of the world that is not flexible enough to adapt to a multilateral world and accept China’s open offers for win-win cooperation. A German woman who has lived in China for more than 20 years said to me, “You don’t have to love China, but you have to accept that it is there.”
Here in Beijing, 8,000 kilometers from my home, there are no “threats.” I meet helpful Chinese people everywhere, be it in shops, underground stations or in the street. Once, in the early days, I got lost and a couple took me back to the hotel, even though they had to go in a different direction themselves. Another time, a courteous young man helped me call a taxi at night and even paid the fare for me. I don’t remember such events because I have a great memory, I remember them because there were so many of them. Although the Chinese don’t smile as often as Germans, they have a kind of simplicity and kindness that is deeply rooted in their bones.
In addition to the impressive economic rise, the reform and opening-up policy has also revolutionized China’s education system. Access to education has been drastically expanded, resulting in a better educated population and skilled labor force. This has not only raised the general level of education, but also strengthened the country’s innovative power and scientific research. This helped to establish China as a center of technological progress and development.
As I write these words on my computer, I have been living in China for six years and have been teaching economics, linguistics, and German at the renowned University of International Business and Economics for almost a year. My conscientious and clever students, who are just as mischievous as some German students, show great creativity in solving problems. These students owe the opportunity they now have to study at top universities to the government’s wise decisions during reform and opening-up.
But does such a reform and opening-up policy ultimately mean that the rich are getting richer in China and the weak are being left behind? No, the statistics and the pictures on the streets give a clear answer: the middle class has grown more than in almost any other country, and social responsibility is very pronounced in China. For example, education programs are designed in such a way that even remote areas benefit from them. Top teachers from big cities teach in mountain villages from time to time and train their colleagues there. If this community spirit is not lost, China will go very far, even further.
When I recently traveled from Beijing to Inner Mongolia for a football match on a high-speed “Fuxing” train at a speed of 350 km/h, I had to grin because 200 km/h is already considered fast in Germany.
I come from a country with top brands, such as Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW, but where people still use paper tickets for the train and metro. Although Chinese-made luxury cars, such as the Mercedes-Benz, are currently widely available in China, more and more Chinese brands are entering the competition, especially in the field of electric vehicles.
China has become increasingly important globally in recent decades, without aspiring to a leadership role. It is an active participant in international cooperation through trade agreements, investments in cross-border infrastructure projects or multilateral initiatives, such as the “New Silk Road.”
Though China’s reform and opening-up policy has its challenges, nevertheless, its results remain impressive. The past 45 years have turned China into an engine of growth and innovation. I believe that China has a strong self-correcting mechanism and can constantly re-plan its own reform path through its own practical experience and close observation of the mistakes of the West. And I believe that my father was right, “This century will be China’s century.”
Nils Bergemann is a journalist, editor and communication expert. A former employee of China Media Group, he currently teaches German, linguistics and economics at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.