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November 11, 2005

German Gloom, Chinese Boom


by Sascha Matuszak

Much has happened in the past two months – hurricane after hurricane, a devastating earthquake, avian flu on Europe's doorstep, Libby under fire, Saddam in a cage, China in space again…

Important people from all walks of life tend to discuss China, even if only from a "Yo, they got cars now right?" perspective. Topics of discussion tend to be cheap Made in China products everywhere; the never-ending stream of determined, hardworking, pragmatic Chinese taking over university classrooms and city blocks; satellites and armies; Taiwan and Japan; and most recently, avian flu. In Germany, the latter was big news, having already traveled across Asia – fortunately, unlike the Huns and Turks of old, settling for now in Hungary and Turkey.

In keeping with the China craze, Der Spiegel ran a front-page story on the new revisionist book on Mao by the acclaimed Chinese author of Wild Swans, Jung Chang. The story resonated with Germans everywhere, living under the shadow of Hitler even now. Der Spiegel discussed Chang's new book about Mao in length, casually enjoying laying heaps of psychopathic, murderous baggage at somebody else's door for a change.

The Germans are grumpy and depressed as usual, moping about like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. They're grumpy about political deadlock and national indecision, and depressed that factories, the unemployed, immigrants, and students have to resort to 1 to 5 Euro/hour jobs to finance their endeavors. The Baby Boomers find themselves released at age 45 with a one-year grace period with pay to figure out what they're going to do, while the old folks continue to sip wine and eat rump steak on fat pensions.

For students and middle-aged businessmen alike, China beckons, but indecision and fear keep the small and medium enterprises locked in their traditional markets while the big boys downsize and transplant operations to Shenzhen, leaving unemployment and frustration in their wake.

And Germany still is second only to the U.S. in patents per year, reinforcing a well-deserved reputation for quality and innovation. But it's not quality and innovation that the German youth seek, but opportunity.

Contrast German gloom with Shanghai's reckless abandon: a city where 25-year-old Chinese girls work for Citibank training the national workforce, and 20-something Americans brief Boeing execs on the China market and fill orders for 25 miles of plastic fittings. Deejays, chefs, and dancers from all over the planet are moving to Shanghai to find their fortune. And when they're all done working, they take to the streets and revel in each other: multinational orgies under the skyscrapers of possibly the most dynamic city in the world.

Of course, taxi drivers struggle to keep their children in school, when once a whole family could survive on 100RMB a month, and now 3,000RMB a month guarantees naught. And in the final analysis, this is what still separates Germany from China.

Nevertheless, contrast German gloom with Chinese opportunism: buying up blocks in the Bay and L.A., river front property in Koln, mines in Chile – not just the big boys like we do it in the West, but every man, woman, and child who can manage to get themselves a visa. Some sweat in the kitchen then put down on their own idea. Some roll through with shoe samples and a price list. Some get kicked out of trade fairs for acting the fool and copying a German producer right in front of his face, but the Chinese will not stop. The enthusiasm with which a Chinese tea party tosses around wild ideas is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

What makes the Chinese different and threatening? Is it their drive and energy, their greed and nationalism, their passive-aggressive behavior toward enemies, or perhaps just their willingness to deal with and even defend regimes the West has slated for a dose of regime change?

What is it about Germans that makes them so dismal even with the technological prowess that Germans are still famous for? Why do Chinese fight for another child in a sea of humanity while Germans choose childlessness amidst warnings of wanings?

America is split, Germany is limp, and China soaks up the best of both in Shanghai and sprays the best of China throughout the planet. Love of life vs. worldweariness… I wonder what Romans thought as the Visigoths came barreling over the Alps?

Did they crack jokes about bird flu and write articles about the mania of their leaders?

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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