In China with the German President

Daniela Stockmann was part of the President’s delegation to China, focused on ethics and digitalisation.

Daniela Stockmann sits next to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Daniela Stockmann sits next to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Daniela Stockmann had just dipped into a bowlful of steaming noodles at a banquet in Chengdu, China, when everyone stood up at once and her meal was swiftly whisked away. It was the first of several state banquets during German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier ’s five-day trip to China in December, accompanied by a delegation of culture and business experts.

“One of the things you learn on a trip like this is the importance of signalling,” Stockmann said. “For example, at a banquet, the dignitaries are served first and – accordingly –- they finish first. Everyone is asked to stop eating when they are done.” The role of the accompanying delegation also depends heavily on cues: listening, providing feedback, and giving policy advice when needed.

The theme of Steinmeier’s visit was “ethics and digitalisation”, a topic closely related to Stockmann’s research on China at the Hertie School in Berlin, where she is Professor of Digital Governance. Having studied China and digital governance in Germany, the US and China, her insights from the three cultures were of particular interest at a time of rising trade tensions and the expansion of Chinese trade and business influence around the world.

“Digitalisation is a good way to bring the US, China and Germany to the same table,” Stockmann said. The German President had made similar trip to Silicon Valley in the US earlier in the year. “The President in Germany is often seen as an ethical role model – and digitalisation is my topic.”

The group started out in Guangzhou, then travelled to Chengdu, where they commemorated the 2008 earthquake, and on to Beijing – the same route taken when Steinmeier visited as Foreign Minister in 2008. “Taking the same route signalled that President Steinmeier also came in a political role,” said Stockmann. “The Chinese know he is very well connected and has a wide network, so they know of his potential as an influential politician in Berlin and Germany. And from the Chinese perspective, this is important because they really care about personal connections.”


A focus on China’s planned Social Credit System

In Guangzhou, the first stop, the group took part in the roundtable with Chinese business representatives.  “Guangdong province is kind of the Silicon Valley of China,” she explained. Through her European Research Council (ERC)-funded research on social media platforms in China, Stockmann has studied the business models of a number of Chinese companies. This helped inform the discussion, and she could ask more pointed questions, based on her knowledge, to companies like Huawei, which has recently been in the news due to allegations of fraud against the company’s CFO Meng Wanzhou. 

A related topic frequently raised on the trip was China’s plan for a so-called Social Credit System (SCS) – a national system of collecting vast amounts of data for assessing the social and financial standing of Chinese citizens. She is teaching a project course in spring 2019 at the Hertie School on a related subject – “Digital governance in China: How to pitch high-quality data to non-governmental actors”, which focuses on the current pilot projects of the SCS in China, among other topics.

The SCS has been viewed warily outside China for its reliance on mass data collection, including social media data, with which the state will judge the trustworthiness of individuals, Stockmann said, noting, however, that most other countries also have some form of credit rating system. “The issue in China is that due to government involvement, there is concern that political views voiced on social media may inform the ratings.”

But there is also a good deal of uncertainty about how the SCS will be implemented. “From the outside, it is easy to regard the Chinese political system as totalitarian. But the reality is that it is a fragmented authoritarian state,” she said. Based on her research in this area, Stockmann was able ask more specific questions of the Chinese delegation: “The Chinese participants confirmed that the government is aware of the fragmentation of the SCS. It is currently impossible to combine all the data gathered via eight commercial pilot projects.” In addition, China’s political system is not conducive to such a national project, as local governments are reluctant to be monitored by the central government for fear of losing autonomy, she said.


Xi Jinping up close

The trip covered a great deal of ground – both geographically and topically. In addition to several professors with ties to China, Steinmeier’s entourage also included a translator of Nobel prize-winning literature, a German blogger with over 5 million followers in China, a former judge of the German Supreme Court, the President of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the head of the Berlin-based think tank Merics, the CEO of the Alba Group, and a board member of the German association for start-ups.

Before embarking, Stockmann spoke with her former PhD advisor Kenneth Lieberthal at the University of Michigan, who had been special advisor to US President Bill Clinton for Asia. “One piece of advice he gave was that in simultaneous translation the translator sometimes doesn’t quite manage to convey the cultural meaning, so I was able to provide some insights on this. For example, if the Chinese side responds, ‘We need to research this (我们得研究研究),’ it generally means ‘No way!’ It would be a mistake to take this literally.”

In Beijing, she participated in a roundtable with Chinese academics on the effects of digitalisation on society. And she accompanied Steinmeier to the Great Hall of the People where he met President Xi Jinping in an official ceremony. “I have studied China for so many years, so to experience this person live, up close, in real life was fascinating for me,” Stockmann said. “I was struck by how much the real Xi Jinping was like the Chinese propaganda version of Xi Jinping. The best way to describe him is like a lion – with lions you don’t know what‘s going on. They are ready to jump any moment.”

China considers Germany a key ally in Europe, she said: “It was clear from the trip that the Chinese – especially President Xi Jinping – were very eager to strengthen the relationship with Germany.”  

At the banquet in Beijing, tea was served at the end – a noteworthy gesture, the Chinese guests told Stockmann. “Usually, the Chinese President gets up soon after finishing his own dinner, leaving other guests never finishing dessert or even having been served tea. Serving tea was a strong signal that Xi Jinping and Steinmeier really wanted to talk. At some point the whole room fell quiet, observing them deeply engaged in conversation at the head table.”

Learn more about Daniela Stockmann