Sieren's China: Germany playing technological catch-up


It’s not by chance that Angela Merkel is devoting a whole day to the city of Shenzhen during her two-day visit to China. The southeastern Chinese metropolis is one of the most developed cities in the world — it is modern, connected and astonishingly clean by China’s standards thanks to an almost entirely e-mobile bus system.

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Like no other city, Shenzhen embodies the Chinese dream to become a technological global power. China wants to lead the world in key areas such as space travel, e-mobility and industrial robotics by 2025. That’s the government’s plan and it has already achieved its goal with regard to high-speed trains.

Global leader in artificial intelligence

Furthermore, China intends to be the world leader in the area of artificial intelligence by 2030 and it is already well on its way. Shenzhen is an example of how dreams can be fulfilled in real time. New technologies based on artificial intelligence such as facial recognition software have been put to use in the public transport system, in supermarkets, policing and also road traffic control. Shenzhen is a “Smart City.” While only a million people lived there in 1986, it now has some 13 million inhabitants. China’s most important tech companies, from data giant Tencent, which owns WeChat, to telecoms provider Huawei, which has made huge progress in developing and establishing the new and faster 5G internet standard, are based in the city and use it as a testing ground.

Shenzhen is a city for young people and a city of doers. There’s a sense of an awakening in the city, a zeal to make technological progress. People are experimenting, starting anew. Failure is not shameful. Some 380,000 new companies were founded in Shenzhen last year alone. Germany can only dream of such dynamism.

DW's Frank Sieren (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl)

DW’s Frank Sieren

No wonder then that Shenzhen has been nicknamed China’s Silicon Valley. Many Chinese entrepreneurs have set up companies here after doing a stint in the US and returning with international teams. The conditions are ideal. Since factories and start-ups are located in the same vicinity, entrepreneurs can easily create prototypes and test software and hardware for their feasibility in a short amount of time.

Money is also easier to access here than elsewhere. The state provides financial support for start-ups and many of the governors are very generous since they are eager to meet and surpass the central government’s goals. The market is also hungrier than in the West. Innovations catch on more easily. So start-ups have plenty of freedom — paradoxically, in a country where access to Google and Facebook is only possible via VPNs and civil society is kept on a tight rein. In the West, it seems hardly imaginable that these two worlds can exist side by side. But in China, this is a reality that the West will have to get used to because it will shape the future. The times when Germany had a technological head start and China was just copying are almost over — faster than Germany would probably like.

Consumers believe in progress

One reason why everything is going so fast in China is that consumers are more open towards new developments. According to one survey, a large majority of the German population is against self-driving cars, despite experts asserting they are safe, whereas 80 percent of Chinese citizens are in favor.

Merkel is aware of these developments. She can sense that Germany will not always be at the forefront of technology. But there is a difference in sensing and seeing and thus her trip to Shenzhen might act as a catalyst, as a wake-up call. At the end of April, Merkel announced that she wanted to pool all German activities on artificial intelligence. State support for developing artificial intelligence in the EU should be “monitored” she said and research should be promoted through tax breaks. Strategically important firms would in future be protected from takeovers, she said.

Overcoming resistance

Monitoring and protectionism are a little defensive. China has already taken over Germany in certain areas of innovation. In a recent speech, Angela Merkel admitted that France and Germany were behind: “But in view of the huge challenges of technological transformation, it is no longer certain that we will be the ones to determine the course of the world. To be honest, we no longer do so in many areas. We must aim to catch up again here, be it in the field of artificial intelligence, in which Germany and France will work closely together…”

One of the factors hindering Germany is that Chinese firms have unrestricted access to huge data pools and this helps to develop intelligent, self-learning computer systems. Merkel knows this and has pointed out that artificial intelligence without access to data was like having a cow but not feeding it.

Read more: Germany and China — trade partners and competitors

If Germany is to keep up with China’s pace in terms of technological development, a great deal of resistance will have to be overcome in society. Activists are alert and critical and have support from the population as was clear from recent protests in Bavaria against new policing laws. Yet — and this ought to be the most important acknowledgement from Merkel’s trip to China — we should not forget that when it comes to new technology, regardless of how good and well thought-through our values and rules are, we have to continue playing a role. We will only have a say in the values of the future if we have advanced technology. Otherwise, we will be on the sidelines.

Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.