Source: Larry Diamond, Senior Fellow The Hoover Institution, Stanford University  

China has so far made only a few conspicuous efforts to exert improper interference in German politics, society, and business. Those that have occurred, however, deserve attention, and, coupled with the overwhelming resources dedicated to nominally legitimate influence activities, will demand a coherent counterstrategy over time. Chinese influence activities in Germany seem sophisticated even though they currently do not appear very effective. The problem from the Chinese point of view is that German public opinion and its media are traditionally critical of the Chinese leadership. Chinese agencies have so far confined themselves to: (a) targeting younger persons—those who have a professional or academic interest in China; (b) weakening the EU and thus subverting a crucial foundation of Germany’s influence; and (c) directing their major thrust at the one part of German society that has a clear interest in good German-Chinese relations and thus is susceptible to Chinese influence: the business community.


With the retreat of the United States from human-rights issues, Germany has taken up the mantle as the strongest critic of China’s human-rights practices. The Chinese Communist Party has opted to plant a seed within the German business elite with the hope that in a post-Merkel Germany, China’s interests would be accommodated more than they are at present. Germany is also an indirect target of China’s efforts directed at the 17–1 group in Central Europe and within the EU. Among the sixteen Central and Eastern European (eleven of them EU member states) gathered in the 16–1 group, the expectation of Chinese investment has led to laxer application of EU rules on procurement and in some cases to opposition to joint EU criticism of China (e.g., concerning the South China Sea, human rights, and the Belt and Road Initiative). Chinese “divide and rule” activities weaken the EU’s China policy and the EU’s cohesion in general and thus affect Germany negatively. There have been limited conspicuous efforts to target specific politicians for cultivation. Influence activities directed toward political parties are negligible, apart from efforts to include them in events on the Belt and Road Initiative.  


More than one hundred thousand Chinese nationals live in Germany, most of them students. Intense exchanges take place between universities, research institutes, and think tanks, as well as between scholars in many areas, in both the natural and social sciences. Several German researchers and academics with a reputation of being critical toward the Chinese government have been denied visas or access to interlocutors in China. China in general targets junior scholars for cultivation. Contacts are initiated from China with invitations to join research projects, apply for grants, attend conferences, and write articles with the promise that they will be published. German universities host twenty Confucius Institutes (out of approximately 160 in all of Europe). Like their counterparts elsewhere, they invest more in gaining general sympathy in German civil society through cultural activities than in advancing an overtly political agenda (which does occur, although rarely). There are fifty-eight Chinese Students and Scholars Associations in Germany that are well organized and seemingly well funded.

Civil Society

Chinese officials regularly complain about the negative attitude toward China in the German public, proven by polls, but do not yet tackle the problem directly. Activities in the PRC by German nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and political foundations are increasingly confined in their activities, not only through China’s new NGO law but also because former Chinese partners are reluctant to cooperate.  


Close relationships, often decades old, between various enterprises and business associations (including a newly established one on the Belt and Road Initiative) are nurtured by the Chinese embassy, consulates, and representatives from Beijing. The Chinese government provides financial and logistical support for events like the Hamburg Summit or Asia Pacific Days in Berlin. A long-standing practice has been to include CEOs of major enterprises in advisory boards of mayors of major Chinese cities and provinces (remuneration seems not to play a role). The issue of “weaponized” investment is growing in importance. In 2016, Chinese companies spent 12.5 billion euros on investments in Germany—about as much as the total investment of the entire previous decade. The main targets have been successful technology companies. The blitz has subsided in the wake of greater political scrutiny beginning in 2017 and German efforts, along with those of the United Kingdom and France, to limit China’s ability to buy, borrow, or steal leading European technology. German enterprises in both China and Germany are major targets for information campaigns related to the Belt and Road Initiative. Enterprises generally respond positively although with circumspection (only 36 percent of German companies in China expect positive effects for their business). Especially large enterprises (e.g., Siemens) have played along and created their own “BRI Task Forces.”


German media have, for decades, been the target of official and unofficial Chinese criticism that they are “anti-Chinese.” China’s state-run media have sought to make some inroads into the mainstream German press. China Daily’s advertisement supplement, China Watch, has been published in only one daily newspaper since readers protested its inclusion in another paper. In 2017, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency partnered with a German firm, the German Television News Agency, or DFA, to provide soft features about how important China is to Germany. Called “Nihao Deutschland,” the program has been criticized as propaganda in the mainstream German press.


It is in business, the one area of tangible Chinese influence efforts, where pushback has begun in Germany. Chancellor Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron have initiated discussions with businesses and the EU Commission on ways to establish stricter investment screening procedures and to push for more reciprocity for European firms in China. In April 2018, the second chamber of the German Parliament (representing the federal states) passed a resolution to lower the threshold at which the government may intervene in foreign direct investment projects in Germany. The measure was clearly targeted at China. As for the EU, the German government has supported language that criticizes the BRI concept for hampering free trade and putting Chinese companies at an advantage.


China can wield massive resources in pushing its public diplomacy agenda. This can turn German and European partners into pawns. The outsize dimension of China’s influence efforts can render them improper or even illegitimate. China’s efforts on the investment side often involve draining technical know-how from German firms. On the political side, its support of Central European countries has been carried out with the aim of dividing the primary political organization of Europe, the EU. The risk of Chinese interference in Germany is serious in the medium to long term, even though so far it is mainly an indirect one and German society by and large has proven sufficiently resilient. A preliminary recommendation on how to prevent the problem from becoming more serious would be to focus on more cohesion, exchange, and transparency among countries concerned, first of all within the EU. This will take time and effort, considering that some countries in Europe (such as a few Eastern European nations along with Greece) hope to use their support of China’s political or technological goals to lure Chinese investment. Still, as a leader of Europe, Germany—along with France—needs to initiate a broad-based discussion among the public and the business community about the challenge presented by China’s economy and political system and its objectives.

Add new comment