Understanding the ’Middle Kingdom’

The Chinese economy has grown strongly in recent years. As an international driving force and trade and cooperation partner for research and innovation, the People’s Republic occupies an important place in the world. However, due to domestic and geopolitical developments, there is growing unease about dealing with China; the country is increasingly perceived as a systemic competitor and rival. The United States and Europe are searching for the right way to deal with the "Middle Kingdom". This development also affects universities and research institutes, because they are involved in diverse scientific cooperation initiatives with China. Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany is therefore establishing a China Competence Platform for universities and research institutes in Germany, with funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Funds totalling nearly 500,000 euros have been approved for the next three years and the "ChinaKooPThüringen" platform is currently being set up.

Cooperation only in line with ethical and academic principles  

"Our aspiration is to increase the competence of German actors in relation to China, to raise their awareness of how to deal with China in a conscious and critical way, because this is an essential prerequisite for cooperating in accordance with ethical and academic principles," says Prof. Walter Rosenthal. The President of Friedrich Schiller University Jena emphasises that there must be solid criteria as a basis for academic cooperation. Dr Claudia Hillinger, Head of the International Office of the University of Jena, mentions academic freedom as one of the principles that is non-negotiable. "However, China remains a partner for us in many areas of research," she says. The aim is a partnership of equals, a mutual give and take. Because the framework conditions in the relationship with China are constantly changing, the new Competence Platform is an important tool into which the knowledge of experts from the University of Jena will be incorporated just as much as external expertise. Participants include Professor of Intercultural Business Communication Christoph Vatter, Junior Professor of Social Geography Simon Runkel and the economist Prof. Andreas Freytag. "The regional network includes Thuringia’s universities as well as non-university research institutes, the Thuringian state development corporation, the city of Jena and German-Chinese associations," says Claudia Hillinger.

A "Flying Office" and qualification programmes 

The new China Competence Platform is currently being established on an institutional basis and as regards staffing. The first step is to work out the needs and experience of researchers and administrators at German universities and non-university research institutes in dealing with China. This information will be used to develop the content for qualification and certificate programmes on China-related competence, as well as a tailor-made China strategy. The strategy will include questions about the protection of intellectual property and the problem of dual use - the use of scientific and other findings, technologies or goods for both civilian and military purposes. Although dual use is not part of our understanding of research, it is a must in the Chinese scientific and research system and is explicitly demanded.

This frequently puts a strain on research cooperation and necessitates more in-depth engagement with our partner China. We will therefore use a train-the-trainer approach to create formats for developing China-related competence for the region, which will be shaped as a cross-sectional range of training opportunities for all target groups. As Claudia Hillinger explains, the focus is on a basic understanding of the country, language, culture and developments in science, business and civil society, as well as the ethical and intercultural dimension of cooperation. In addition, a "flying office" will be installed - an information centre that will work flexibly to provide advice at various university locations, which will enhance communication in the region. "The questions of the China strategy and cooperation concern all universities and they point beyond China to other countries," says Claudia Hillinger. At the end of the project, all knowledge gaps should have been closed and the stakeholders should have been empowered to engage in differentiated cooperation with China. Via the China Competence Platform, the knowledge gained will be available beyond the duration of the project.