Chinese professionals make their mark in Germany

In the first of a two-part series on China's growing influence in Europe, the newcomers to Germany come armed with MBAs and business cards

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 7:55am

On a recent Friday, a group of Chinese lawyers, auditors, managers and consultants, armed with business cards, schmoozed on a terrace overlooking a skyline of glass towers. The wine flowed, the hors d'oeuvres circulated and the seeds of potentially valuable relationships were planted.

The faces in the crowd included representatives from the audit, accounting and tax advisory firm Falk & Co, mergers and acquisitions advisers Keller & Coll, and insurer Ergo. They had gathered for talks on buying insurance, setting up limited companies and hiring staff. The event was organised by Steinbeis Consulting Centre China and the law firm Noerr.

Yet this scene did not play out in Shanghai, Hong Kong or Beijing. The location was an office in Frankfurt at No1 Boersenstrasse, next to the city's beating heart, the stock exchange, where securities have been traded for over 130 years - and where 23 mainland and Hong Kong companies have listed since 2007.

As Chinese firms acquire or merge with German ones or establish branches in the country, and as German firms hire staff from China to cater to that country's market, the number of Chinese white-collar workers in major German cities has grown. This is especially so in Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Hamburg, respectively the country's financial, industrial and cargo hubs.

The small but growing crop of newcomers is nothing like the immigrants who worked in restaurants in the 1980s and 1990s. They wear fine leather shoes, banter in German, shuttle between Europe and China, and hold MBAs and accounting and legal qualifications.

"There has been a big rise in the number of businesspeople who are Chinese here," said Rainer Gehnen, executive director of the German-Chinese Business Association. "There have been so many investments coming from China to Germany, and they need locally experienced legal, tax and management consultants and advisers." Many service providers in Germany hire Chinese professionals to facilitate efficient communication with their Chinese business partners.

While Chinese companies that acquire German ones usually leave the core management unchanged, Chinese liaison managers are still required. "They help to bridge intercultural differences and align German operations with the Chinese owner's global strategy," says Gehnen.

He estimates this new class of Chinese worker has experienced double-digit growth every year for the past few years, corresponding to the general increase in Chinese direct investment in Germany.

Cord Eberspraecher, director of the Confucius Institute in Dusseldorf, said this group of Chinese were "much more self-confident about their own economic strength and what they have to offer".

"This has a lot to do with the companies they are working for," he said. "You can see it from the way they carry themselves."

The growing Chinese presence has been felt not only at the bourse, but in the appearance of more and more restaurants with names like Peking Ente, in the Putonghua heard on trams and trains, and in the news. Last year, China's Sany Heavy Industry agreed to buy German cement pump maker Putzmeister, and equipment manufacturer Weichai Power agreed to buy a stake in forklift maker Kion Group. According to the German Foreign Office, there are 900 Chinese companies in Germany.

For Germany, China is the second-biggest export market outside Europe, after the United States. For China, Germany is the top trading partner in Europe. Last year, German exports to China totalled €66.6 billion (HK$675 billion) and imports came to €77.3 billion.

According to the Central Registry of Foreigners in Germany, there were 86,435 Chinese nationals, including mainlanders and Hongkongers, in the country at the end of 2011. That represented a rise of 6.3 per cent compared to a year earlier and 40 per cent compared to a decade earlier. The most recent increase is unusual against recent years. From 2005 to 2010, the rate was 3.1 per cent at most.

The average age of the Chinese nationals in the country has remained steady at about 31 years old, with an even distribution of men and women.

There were also 102,000 immigrants or foreigners born in the country with a Chinese migration background in 2011.

More students come from China than anywhere else. In 2011, they totalled 22,828, more than double the number from Russia, the second-biggest country of origin.

Many of the Chinese professionals in Germany found jobs after graduating from universities in the country and have at least a working proficiency in the language and familiarity with the culture.

Yao Yuankai, China desk manager at Falk, is one example. The Qingdao native, 33, studied economics, finance and accounting at Frankfurt University, Munich University and Heidelberg University. He has grown adept at navigating cultural differences in his work.

"For Germans, things must be clear, ja or nein. The concept of a jein doesn't actually exist," he said. "Germans are direct about what they want, while Chinese clients won't tell you in very clear terms. You will know what the Chinese want in the end, but it requires a process."

Yao speaks German with his colleagues, keeps a collection of Goethe's works on his bedroom bookshelf, and readily expounds his views on Germany's welfare system, the strength of the country's industry and the hardiness of its women at the drop of a hat. At the same time, he can network Chinese style, dining with work acquaintances three times per week and going to the all-important karaoke gatherings.

And for that there is Melody KTV, whose interiors are decked out in gold wallpaper and chandeliers. Opened in 2008, it is one of two Asian-style karaoke venues in Frankfurt. On the Friday after the Steinbeis talks, this is where the real party starts and where, over beer and singing, relationships are forged.

Yao gets there late. Once there, he dives in, singing and yelling into the mike. When he leaves at 2am, he has downed six beers, but lets everyone else into taxis before leaving himself.

"For Germans, work is work, play is play. When their day is done, they go home to their families," Yao says over a lunch of Sichuan-style fish and dumplings the next day before going into the office. Not so for the Chinese. "For example, we'll play badminton together, but we won't talk business. We'll just play badminton, and we'll do this for a year or so. During this time, the other guy is determining what kind of a person you are, whether you're trustworthy."

As Chinese immigrants go, Yao is relatively new. The first generation arrived in the 19th century. They were merchants, students, diplomats and artists, said Barbara Yu-Demski, author of The Chinese in Berlin and director of the Confucius Institute in the capital. Following a break after the first world war, students from wealthy families and those who were interested in politics and the anti-imperialist movement arrived. Many left with the rise of the Nazis.

The 1980s and early 1990s saw the arrival of more students. Then those fleeing China came, followed in the late 1990s by businesspeople. Since then, the students have kept coming.

Those who arrived in the 1980s and 1990s have a different experience from those who came in the last decade due to what was happening in China. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping had just launched his economic reforms and Europe was flourishing. By contrast, those arriving now are coming from a booming economy to a Europe in austerity.

Shau Ying, who runs Shanghai Restaurant in Munich, which his sister opened in 1961, estimates 90 per cent of the Chinese in the country worked in restaurants in the early 1980s. Today Shau, chairman of the Federation of Chinese in Germany, believes that figure has dropped to about 60 per cent.

One Chinese woman, who arrived in 1987, remembers a more difficult time. "The cultural difference was too big," she said.

Things got especially hard when her husband finished his studies and his scholarship ended. "We didn't have much money and we didn't know how we were going to live," said the woman, 50, who declined to provide her full name. "If we were to go back to China, it would be very hard," she said.

The change of cuisine did not help and she missed steamed buns. Unable to find a bamboo steamer, she fashioned a makeshift one by hammering nails through the lid of a cookie tin. Today, steamers can be found at local Asian supermarkets.

Though the Chinese have been coming for decades, the relationship between them and the Germans is not always harmonious.

Eberspraecher says many stay confined to their Chinese working environments and have problems with the language.

He says there is a fear among Germans that the Chinese will take over local jobs, even though it is unfounded. "This comes from the past," he said. "In the 1980s, when the Chinese companies came to buy German ones, that meant a transfer of knowledge and technology away from Germany. Many Germans can't grasp that a Chinese takeover doesn't mean that any more."

Still, there are times when the cultures blend organically, for example one Sunday at a barbecue - or a Grille, a beloved German past-time - at the home of Xiu Haitao, founder and editor of the Chinesische Handelszeitung, a Frankfurt-based Chinese newspaper.

In between bites of lamb and steak, the guests, members of Frankfurt's Chinese community, filled up on noodles, marinated fungus and pickled turnip. After imbibing some German beer and award-winning wines from local vineyards, two men broke into song with German folk tunes. All the while, the two-year-old son of a German-Chinese couple ran around the house, speaking Putonghua.

The Chinese community continues to evolve. With the passage of time, another group has emerged: the children of the immigrants who came in the 1980s and 1990s. While the new arrivals are busy acclimatising to the land of beer, Bach and Bretzeln, this second generation is starting to explore its heritage.

Siyuan He, 24, has decided to do Chinese studies at the Free University in Berlin. During an internship at the magazine Tip-Berlin, she wrote about the Chinese community. "I want to learn about my roots," she says.