von Stefan Messingschlager


22. Mai 2024

Public outcry has seldom been louder: Germany is diminishing rather than enhancing its ”China competence” journalist Felix Lee highlighted in October 2023. Echoing this concern, German trade associations now view the lack of China competence as a structural competitive disadvantage. Furthermore, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research regularly emphasizes the urgent need to bolster China competence. The German Strategy on China, released by the federal government in July 2023, even includes a specific chapter regarding "Expertise on China", wherein the government asserts that "independent expertise on China is essential for mutual understanding and for the long-term, successful pursuit and assertion of Germany’s interests".[1]


"China Competence" as a Resource: Knowledge and Skills in Dealing with China

It seems everywhere there is talk of the need for increased competence and expertise concerning China. Yet, when considering the public discourse of recent years, it's not entirely clear what exactly is meant by the often interchangeably used terms "China competence" and "China expertise."

BMBF Funding Initiative "Regionaler Ausbau der China-Kompetenz in der Wissenschaft (Regio-China)": Funded Projects 2023-2026 © Karte Statistikportal / David Liuzzo, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED | Bearbeitung: DLR, Link

Starting with the term "China competence", which appears slightly clearer, this concept has been around for a while but gained prominence through the guidelines published in November 2016 for "promoting innovative concepts for the development of China competence at German universities". In this document, "China competence" is defined as a blend of language skills, specialized knowledge, and intercultural competencies.[2]This marked the beginning of both quantitative and qualitative enhancements of China competence since the mid-2010s; together with governmental institutions and private foundations, the federal government initiated a series of concrete measures: These include the establishment of China competence centers at universities and the promotion of China competence in educational contexts. The federal government's partial funding of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) is also a significant component of these efforts.[3]

Prof. Dr. Eberhard Sandschneider (left) in conversation with the founding director of MERICS, Prof. Dr. Sebastian Heilmann, June 2015 © ErikViol via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

The call for more China competence has been supported and complemented by the academic discourse itself. Over the years, scholars like Andreas Guder, Matthias Stepan, Angela Frenzel, Nadine Godehardt, and Marina Rudyak have repeatedly advocated for enhanced promotion of China competence and have shaped the term in scholarly discussions as a multidimensional, complex concept that, alongside language skills, includes knowledge of history, culture, and the political system, as well as intercultural communication skills and experience in dealing with Chinese people.[4]

One could say that the concept of “China competence” encompasses a complex array of skills, which, according to the early modern linguist Andreas Müller, form what is known as a 'Chinese key' (clavis Sinica) – unlike in the late 17th century, this modern version of the Chinese key is not based on any magical formula but on a fundamentally de-orientalized belief that one can acquire the knowledge and essential skills needed for dealing with China.


"China Expertise" as an Analytical Category: Approaching a Practice and a Fragile Category of Attribution

The call for strengthening China competencies, especially from the field of China studies, can and should furthermore be seen as a counter-reaction – an answer to the decades-long practice of interpreting and mediating China through "experts" and "connoisseurs" in public discourse, where it was often unclear on what basis assessments were made.[5]

This practice of interpreting and mediating China-related issues extends beyond the actual competencies of the individuals involved, representing a phenomenon that merits closer examination. It is as old as the Western-Chinese relationship itself but became particularly pronounced after 1949 when China isolated itself from the West. In research on the history of Sino-German relations, this phenomenon has been addressed only sporadically, yet it serves as a crucial junction between the history of perception and classical relationship history, enriching our understanding of the discursive negotiation, reflection, and practical shaping of the Federal Republic's relation with the People's Republic of China.

To more precisely capture this complex practice, I advocate for using the heuristically valuable concept of expertise as employed in the sociology of knowledge and the history of knowledge. I understand "China expertise" as a multifaceted practice directed towards the public sphere, involving interpretation, advising, and mediating, which was always dependent on the temporal context and thus took on various forms: from interpretation and mediation in public discourse and policy advising to the mediating practices in trans- and international exchanges of diplomacy, economy, and cultural relations.

Following this understanding, China expertise primarily becomes empirically tangible "in actu", i.e., when individuals appear as "experts" in the public space. Demonstrable knowledge and skills were long not a prerequisite for acting as a "China expert"—the connection between China expertise in the public space and underlying competence was more often the exception.

Moreover, the practice of China expertise is always based on a contemporary and hence historizable logic of attribution, which, however, is seldom empirically traceable. Besides China expertise as a practice, a second dimension of the expertise concept unfolds—as a category of fragile attributions of competence. As both a practice and a category of attribution, the two dimensions of "China expertise" are closely intertwined. Thus, it was not primarily academics who were attributed with China expertise and who accordingly acted as interpreters and mediators; rather, it was journalists, travel reporters, and from the mid-20th century onwards, also politicians, diplomats, and business representatives who functioned as "China experts" in various contexts.

With such conceptualization and operationalization of "China expertise", which historically lacks a link to verifiable knowledge and skills, I argue for removing the term "China expertise" from everyday usage as synonymous with "expert knowledge" or "China competence", and instead making "China expertise" the subject of a critically reflective examination in the dual sense of the term described.


"China Expertise" in the Federal Republic of Germany after 1949: An Overview

The multifaceted nature of China expertise as an empirically tangible practice becomes apparent when we cast a cursory glance at the period following 1949. After the communists' victory in the civil war, the People's Republic of China isolated itself from the West; the newly formed PRC overnight became a black box, which only heightened Western interest in the country and led to numerous efforts at interpretation and mediation.

Initially, it was primarily the interpretations by journalists, correspondents, and travel reporters that embodied the phenomenon of Western China expertise. For instance, prominent journalists like Lily Abegg and Harry Hamm widely shared their impressions of the country in bestselling books, which were based on their extensive guided tours across China.[6]

In the context of Sino-American rapprochement, China expertise also gained special significance as a specific practice of policy advising. From the late 1960s, the German Foreign Office and the Chancellor's Office began to extensively utilize state-funded think tanks that had been progressively established since the mid-1950s. The Institut für Asienkunde (IfA), the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), and the Bundesinstitut für ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien (BIOst) evolved into a network of non-university research that subsequently served as a vital resource for German politics. In the 1970s and 1980s, staff members of these institutes like Oskar Weggel (IfA), Dieter Heinzig (BIOst), and Joachim Glaubitz (SWP) became prominent expert figures with strong connections in politics, diplomacy, business, and media; together with scholars of Chinese politics like Jürgen Domes, they significantly shaped the academic China expertise of the post-war era.

Undoubtedly, some of the most compelling examples of China expertise are provided by journalist Klaus Mehnert and former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Klaus Mehnert had a long engagement with China; having been in China during the 1930s and 1940s, he reported on the country during his world travels in the 1950s and thereafter considered it his mission to convey the "essence" of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China to Western audiences. In spring 1971, he was one of the first Western citizens invited by the Chinese leadership to travel through China after the Cultural Revolution. His travel report "China nach dem Sturm" overnight made him one of the world's leading China experts, and a few years later, he accompanied Chancellor Helmut Schmidt on his 1975 trip to China.[7]

Klaus Mehnert presents his recently published book "China nach dem Sturm", November 1971 © Gesellschaft für Kieler Stadtgeschichte via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, Link

Helmut Schmidt later emerged as a new mediator for China in his role as an elder statesman. From the mid-1980s, his books increasingly focused on China, advocating in the West for an understanding of the policies of the Chinese leadership, even in light of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Although he did not speak Mandarin and his interpretation of China remained based on an image from the late 1970s until the end of his life, he could still claim China expertise based on his numerous visits to the PRC and his discussions with Chinese leaders like Deng Xiaoping.[8]

As demonstrated by the example of Helmut Schmidt, interpretations of China in public discourse did not necessarily have to be backed by specific skills, knowledge, or competencies concerning China; this remains true to some extent even today. However, from the 1970s, we see an increasingly close link between China expertise and verifiable China competencies in the realm of policy advising. Particularly in the Foreign Office, there was a growing questioning of the basis on which contributors formulated their interpretations of China, thus reflecting for the first time on the basis for the attribution of China expertise. At least in policy advising, this marks the beginning of a link between China expertise and verifiable competencies that would become defining for the 1970s and 1980s.


Competence and Expertise: Reflective Considerations

The world of the 21st century is inconceivable without the People's Republic of China. The concept of "China competence" can be a useful construct to encompass the broad spectrum of knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences deemed relevant for dealing with China. It is, however, a temporally and contextually bound category that must continually be the subject of discursive negotiation.

The term "China expertise" should be distinguished from this and subjected to critical scrutiny as an empirically tangible practice. The notion of China expertise opens up a view on a multitude of phenomena, from interpretation and mediation in public discourse, policy advising, and transnational and international mediation to advising the economy on China trade. Critical historical and contemporary research not only has the task of identifying these practices but also of making China expertise accessible as a result of fragile attributions.

A critical, self-reflective approach is crucial not only within research practices but also within science communication, particularly in how expert status is attributed. If researchers were to speak in public discourse solely on topics where their own research and publications have established their qualifications, it would undoubtedly enhance the credibility of academic expertise both in discourse and in political contexts—a principle applicable beyond just China studies.


[1] Government of the Federal Republic of Germany: Strategy on China (July 13th, 2023), p. 61, available online (last accessed on October 15th, 2023).
[2] Federal Ministry of Education and Research: Bekanntmachung: Richtlinie zur Förderung von "Innovativen Konzepten zum Ausbau der China-Kompetenz an deutschen Hochschulen". Bundesanzeiger November 24th, 2026, available online (last accessed on October 15th, 2023).
[3] Regarding the status of state support for China competence in Germany: German Bundestag, Drucksache 20/9815: Stand des Ausbaus der China-Kompetenz in Deutschland, January 5th, 2024.
[4] See for example: Roman Kierst: Expert-Interview with Andreas Guder: Was ist „China-Kompetenz“?, in: yì magazìn August 2022, available online (last accessed on October 15th, 2023); Angela Frenzel/ Nadine Godehardt: Mehr Chinakompetenz wagen. Zur außenpolitischen Bedeutung der Chinakompetenz für die deutsche und europäische Chinapolitik, in: SWP-Aktuell 2020/A 59, July 1st, 2020; Matthias Stepan/ Andrea Frenzel/ Jaqueline Ives/ Marie Hoffmann: China kennen, China können. Ausgangspunkte für den Ausbau von Chinakompetenz in Deutschland, in: MERICS China Monitor, Nr. 45, Berlin 2018; Marina Rudyak: Effektive Chinapolitik braucht strategische Empathie braucht mehr Chinakompetenz, in: 49Security, 2023, available online (last accessed on April 21st, 2024).
[5] This finding forms the basis of the critical study by Marie-Luise Domes-Näth: Die Volksrepublik China in Deutschland. Wahrnehmungen, Wissenschaftskonzeptionen und Wirklichkeiten, Frankfurt am Main 1995.
[6] Lily Abegg: Im neuen China, Zürich/ Freiburg 1957; Harry Hamm: Das Reich der 700 Millionen: Begegnung mit dem China von heute, Düsseldorf 1965.
[7] Klaus Mehnert: China nach dem Sturm, Stuttgart 1971.
[8] On Helmut Schmidt and China: Martin Albers: In retrospect: A short review on Helmut Schmidt’s view on China, Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt Foundation, Hamburg 2023, available online (last accessed on October 15th, 2023).