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Scholz’s visit: a transcultural tightrope act

By Ulrich Sollmann
Psychologist Ulrich Sollmann teaches at the Shanghai University of Political Science.

The timing of the Chancellor’s visit to China could not be worse, German conservative politician Friedrich Merz stresses loudly and yet in a hushed voice. He accuses the Chancellor of utter disrespect. But Merz, who himself sits comfortably in a glass house, throws stones disrespectfully. He neither has any political responsibility, nor does he have to prove himself in political transcultural communication. The latter is not only necessary, especially at the present time of intensifying polarization, but a rare art. An art that is observed vigilantly and often in wise silence, especially in China.

One could argue that Scholz could not have found a better time to visit China. After all, he is the first Western head of government to visit China in a long time: after Covid, after the start of the Ukraine war, after skyrocketing inflation, after the Party Congress, after Xi Jinping’s re-election, and shortly before the upcoming meeting of the G20 countries.

This gives the Chancellor’s visit a certain pioneering or pathfinder function. It creates, one might suppose, a prolonged new geopolitical first impression. Such an impression is less affected by the details of the political substance or positions – discussed or kept hidden. These are negotiated behind closed doors anyway. Such a first impression lives primarily from the psychosocial induction of emotionality.

The chancellor’s visit thus seems to have a certain pioneering or trailblazing function. It creates, one might suggest, a prolonged new geopolitical first impression. Such an impression is less affected by the details of the factual political content or positions discussed or concealed. These are negotiated behind closed doors anyway. Such a first impression lives primarily from the psychosocial induction of emotionality. One either finds the behavior of the participants in such a moment “good” or “bad”. You either like the way Scholz and Xi will greet each other or you feel emotional discomfort.

This emotional process shapes the chemistry of the relationship of the parties involved. In this case, between Olaf Scholz and Xi Jinping. The same applies between the media and political actors. The media coverage then shapes the relationship chemistry between politics and society. And in the best case, the chemistry that develops between the cultures of China and Germany.

The Chancellor as a door opener

The geopolitical situation calls for a reconsideration of Germany’s China strategy. This is certainly on the minds of many, be it in the Chancellor’s Office or the ministries. But such a strategy also depends on how it is communicated and executed. Therefore, the Chancellor’s visit to China has, among other things, the function of a communicative door opener. It remains to be seen how successful Scholz will be in communicating in such a way that Xi opens his ears and his cultural senses. After all, this is the necessary communicative prerequisite for the imminent transcultural tightrope act.

There is a lot of talk in this context about the differences between political systems, or even about competition or rivalry between systems. That makes sense. But it is also about the difference between cultures, about the practiced communicative respect for the other, the stranger, despite all differences and discrepancies.

Some speak of intercultural aspects, others of multicultural differences. On the other hand, there is not enough talk about transcultural communication. But the latter is what it is about. Let me make a simple comparison. Imagine you are learning a new language. You need vocabulary. You familiarize yourself with the grammar and idiomatic rules of the language. Then the linguistic adventure begins. You take the plunge into the cold water of lived communication and experience yourself and your counterpart as emotional communicators as well.

I compare the acquisition of vocabulary with intercultural communication, the acquisition of grammar with the multicultural perspective and the communication on the ground as transcultural, practiced communication.

So Scholz would do well to familiarize himself with all three perspectives. What are the relevant basic cultural prerequisites in the sense of cultural vocabulary that are important right now? What are the relevant cultural communication patterns and rules that need to be respected? (Merz still appears to have to demonstrate his ability to learn in this regard). And will Scholz successfully, that is, compatibly, be able to move like a fish in the communicative (wild) water?

How will he be able to stay true to his political and personal nature and at the same time appear emotionally, relationally compatible? He might be a concrete door-opener in China. He might be able to initiate a narrative for the G-20 meeting and at the same time embody a new geopolitical role model.

Being transcultural successful in China could therefore also mean for Scholz:

  • To practice inter-, multi-, and trans-culturally adequately,
  • to develop own, clear positions, characterized by their independence rather than by “in distinction from the other”,
  • to know and feel that not only the other person is foreign, but that I am, too, foreign to myself (acceptance of my own blind spots),
  • to remain transculturally capable of resonance without wanting to appear more Chinese than a Chinese person.

Then, political strategy is not only a good strategy, but also proves to be a good enough strategy in the given situation.

Ulrich Sollmann is a psychotherapist, political consultant and visiting professor at Shanghai University of Political Science. He is the author of the book: “Begegnungen im Reich der Mitte” (Psychosozial Verlag, 2018).

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