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Timo Balz – Exploring the distance from Wuhan

Actually, Timo Balz should have known better. As a professor of remote sensing, the native Swabian is a precise observer of minimal fluctuations and tiny changes. He uses satellite radars to survey movements on the planet. Balz collects data on volcanoes, tectonic plates or the subsidence of cities. It’s a matter of a few centimeters per year – if at all that. But the isolation of his adopted home, the city of Wuhan, in January last year, on the other hand, was one thing Balz hadn’t seen coming, even though there were plenty of clues. “I was certainly a bit naive in this case,” he recounts a year and a half after the pandemic began. Rumors had long been circulating that the city was about to be sealed off.

When it became clear that no one would be allowed to leave the city, and soon after that no one would be allowed to leave the house either, the 46-year-old went shopping and stocked up on canned food. He lobbied the German media for the German government to fly their citizens out of Wuhan. But it was already clear at the time that a return to Germany was out of the question for Balz and his family: “We have no place to live in Germany. So that was also a very practical consideration. And besides, Wuhan is my home.” But he knew many colleagues who wanted to return, so he supported the pressure on the government, Balz says.

In China, Wuhan is considered the “city of heroes” who took the harsh lockdown, with all its drastic and sometimes brutal measures, to protect the rest of the country from the virus. “I think that was a spontaneous reaction of the people. Later, of course, the government was happy to embrace it,” Balz says.

Balz has now lived in Wuhan for thirteen years. But he established his first ties with China early on at the beginning of his doctorate at the University of Stuttgart. A scientific project was planned but failed at the time. His interest in language was sparked, however, and Balz traveled to Wuhan for a year on a language scholarship in 2004. Even then, the local university was considered a good research location for remote sensing. Today, the University of Wuhan regularly takes the top spot of Shanghai Rankings in this field. During his scholarship, Balz established contacts with local colleagues and contributed to various projects. This also helped him to gain a foothold in Wuhan after finishing his doctorate.

Throughout the years, he has also noticed the changes in the Chinese science system. “In Germany, it is hard to understand how quickly things develop in China. That also applies to universities,” says Balz. China has learned a lot from Germany and Europe, but now China is slowly taking the lead. “There is a lot of investment in science. Our university, for example, has now launched its very own satellite into space.”

A University education has long since ceased to be an elite privilege in China. However, there are still big differences between the level of the individual universities. “I am already aware that I have a certain insight into an elite world,” says Balz. This disparity in quality is perhaps the only detail where Chinese universities still lag a tad bit behind German ones, he adds. David Renke

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