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Sinology in Germany: fighting distorted images

By Bjoern Alpermann
Bjoern Alpermann is a Sinologist at the University of Wuerzburg.

For some time now, a battle of opinions over the position of sinology and its relationship to the People’s Republic has been raging. Long regarded as an exotic subject, the discipline has struggled in some quarters to come to terms with the political significance that is now attributed to it. However, the impression that sinology, as a whole, has allowed itself to be bought off by the increasingly authoritarian ruling Communist Party is fundamentally wrong.

On the contrary, more and more sinologists are speaking out publicly and taking an active part in the necessary debate on the reorientation of German and European policy towards China. Nevertheless, the insinuation that the discipline is hopelessly entangled in dependencies vis-à-vis China persists. This was recently demonstrated by a commentary in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung on the visit of the Federal Minister of Education of Taiwan.

Here, the author made it sound as if Bettina Stark-Watzinger traveled there primarily to enable “alternative information and teaching content in the field of sinology in the interest of her own higher education landscape […].” Because, he goes on to write, “China expertise, chairs and institutes in this country are now so steeped in money and interests of the People’s Republic that more scholarly distance is called for.”

Close to defamation

Evidence of the alleged infiltration of German sinology by money and influence from the authoritarian People’s Republic is lacking. Nevertheless, an entire discipline is denounced. The reality, however, looks different: Like any university subject, sinology and its employees are financed by public funds – state budgets, DFG, BMBF, and EU, among other third-party donors. The repeatedly mentioned Confucius Institutes and two language professorships co-financed by China play a negligible role and have partly expired or are in the process of being wound up. There is no evidence of financial dependence. And by the way, all Chinese scholars working in the public sector have taken an oath of office on the free democratic basic order. To insinuate that they serve the “interests of the People’s Republic” is tantamount to defamation.

A cursory glance at curricula and cooperation partners of German sinology institutes is sufficient to realize that Taiwan has long been taken into account, not just in teaching and research, but also that close cooperation with Taiwanese institutions is commonplace. They employ language teachers from there, maintain exchange programs and conduct joint research with Taiwanese colleagues.

Silence on the part of sinologists would be fatal

Stark-Watzinger did not travel to Taiwan because the local sinology needs help in this regard, but to negotiate concrete agreements on research cooperation, especially in the field of high technology. Instead of distrusting “sinology,” the Federal Ministry of Education is currently setting up a series of projects in which sinological chairs and other centers of China expertise are to provide the rest of the scientific landscape in Germany with China competence. After all, who has a better understanding of the risks in working with China than the reviled sinologists?

The discussion about sinology is only a small part of the larger China debate. But it exemplifies the larger picture. Because it shows how difficult it is to combat distorted images that have become entrenched in many minds due to constant repetition. Only resolute opposition can help against this. Instead of blanket judgments, we need a differentiated debate on China – and this will not be possible without the qualified contributions of sinologists.

However, anyone confronted with prejudice will think twice before actively seeking publicity. But a “silence of the sinologists” would be fatal. Just imagine how Germany would have made it through the Covid pandemic if all virologists had not participated in public discourse, education, and policy advice because of the general prejudice that they were all bought by the pharmaceutical industry anyway.


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