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China’s rise retold

On 17 April 1978, Wenpo Lee is head of the research department at Volkswagen in Wolfsburg. He parted ways with China – until a Chinese delegation arrived at the factory gate. Wenpo Lee went on to become one of the architects of VW’s China business. At the same time, he experienced how the country mastered its rise to economic power.

“Wenpo, do you still speak your mother tongue?” shouted an employee of Volkswagen’s press department excitedly into the telephone on 17 April 1978.

Wenpo is my father and, back then, was head of a research department for the development of fuel-efficient engines at VW in Wolfsburg. Fuel-injected engines were still a new technology, which until then had mainly been used in expensive cars. Now a variant was to be developed that would be suitable for the mass segment, for a car that everyone could afford. This also involved alternative fuels. Climate change and carbon emissions were not yet an issue, but the oil price crisis of 1973 was still fresh in many people’s minds. There were also the first reports about acid rain and forest dieback. And the fact that harmful exhaust emissions could not go on forever was also on my father’s mind. Twenty years later, the FSI engine his team was working on at the time would be used in the VW Lupo. But that was still a distant vision at the time – and not the reason for the phone call that morning.

Could he come over? There are a few Chinese at the gate. Nobody knows what they want. One of them claimed to be the Chinese Minister of Mechanical Engineering.

German and Chinese economic history

Of course, my father still knew Chinese. However, he doubted that a Chinese minister was standing outside the factory gate. He did not even consider it likely that they were from the People’s Republic. Probably the gentlemen were more likely from Japan, perhaps from Southeast Asia. His colleague from the press department was not the only one to whom Asians all looked alike. My father had often been mistaken for a Japanese or a Vietnamese.

My father was preoccupied with data evaluations and test results on the way to the unexpected visitors, but he was a little curious to see who he was about to meet. But he had no idea that this morning would not only turn his life around but that German and Chinese economic history would also be made.

Up until then, my father rarely had any reason to enter the famous main building of the company with its brown clinker brick façade and the large VW logo on the roof. It was the tallest building in Wolfsburg. At the top, on the twelfth and thirteenth floors, were the bosses, members of the board of directors, as they were officially called.

At the factory gate: the Chinese Minister of Mechanical Engineering

When he reached the building, there were indeed five Chinese standing in the entrance area. They had been brought here from the factory gate in the meantime. With one look, my father realized they were not Japanese, Taiwanese, nor Chinese immigrants from the USA. Four of them were wearing a suit and tie, one had on a blue-grey jacket and pants in the same color, a standard suit that had been common in China since the founding of the Republic in 1912.

Guenter Hartwich, production manager and member of the VW board of management, gave a short welcoming speech. The men looked a bit lost, but upon seeing my father, their faces lightened up. They were visibly relieved to see a fellow countryman. And when my father spoke to them in Chinese, they seemed downright delighted. One of them was named Yang Keng, who was clearly the leader, judging by his demeanor. The name did not ring any bells with my father. And why should it, over the years, China had become almost as foreign to him as it had always been to most German citizens. Yang Keng introduced himself as a minister of the People’s Republic of China, responsible for agricultural and industrial machinery.

Yang Keng was tasked with expanding China’s automotive industry, which until then had largely consisted of the manufacturing of tractors and trucks. It was to include commercial vehicles for road transport, i.e. buses and large trucks. The minister bluntly admitted that his country was technically very backward, that they lacked the knowledge. That is why he came to Germany. He wanted to visit German vehicle manufacturers and learn from them. There was no talk of buying or selling a car for the moment.

My father was not particularly experienced at translating, but he gave his best to help both sides understand each other. At some points he had to elaborate a bit more and provide further explanations; simultaneous translation would not have sufficed, the worlds in which the interlocutors lived were too different.

From refugee boy to VW manager

My father had left the world from which the five delegation members came thirty years earlier. In the turmoil of the Chinese civil war, he fled from China to Taiwan in 1948 at the age of twelve and fended for himself there as a refugee boy until a teacher couple took him in and eventually brought him with them to Germany to study.

Things went well for him from the moment he arrived in the Federal Republic in 1962. He studied and earned his doctorate, and found a job as a development engineer at VW. With his first salary, my father bought a hi-fi system. In his student days in Aachen, he owned a VW Beetle, which he shared with a fellow student; in the meantime, my father drove a Passat. In the seventies, there were only very few foreigners at the plant who had made it to department manager. And, in fact, he was no longer a foreigner, since 1977 he held German citizenship, which meant he was a German. As such, he had traveled to China a few months earlier for the first time since fleeing to see his parents again. His hometown of Nanjing, like the entire country, was in a pitiful state.

The visit was made possible by China’s tentative opening since the death of Mao Tse-tung in September 1976. After some power struggles, Deng Xiaoping was on his way to the top of the government in 1978 and already introduced the first measures of his modernization course. So the fact that a Chinese delegation traveled to Germany to gain an insight into car production here did not come out of the blue, but was a sign of a development that was to progress steadily over the next few years.

VW was there from the start

Although it would take a few more years and numerous tough negotiations before the groundbreaking ceremony for the first joint venture plant in Shanghai, Volkswagen was nevertheless one of the first Western companies to open a branch in the emerging country with over one billion people in 1984.

Since then, Volkswagen has managed to occupy the top spot in car sales in China for more than three decades. VW is now losing this rank in the wake of electric mobility, where the Chinese competition is leading the way for the first time. Nevertheless, VW’s overall statistics are full of superlatives. The three plants that my father helped start in China in 1978 have now grown into thirty-four car and component plants. Every fifth new car in China comes from a VW factory. Volkswagen has created over 90,000 jobs in China in this way. Every second car VW produced in 2021 was sold to a Chinese.

The question of dependence immediately arises. It did not matter as long as China was an emerging but still underdeveloped country and the foreign companies were technologically, financially and also management-wise superior to the Chinese companies. And that is what China was for many years: modest, grateful, and at the same time keen to learn and inquisitive.

Felix Lee: “China, My Father and Me. On the Rise of a Superpower and What the Lee Family from Wolfsburg Has to Do with It,” German version, Ch. Links Verlag, 256 pages, ISBN 978-3-96289-169-5, also available as e-book. Published on March 14, 2023.


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