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German government wants companies to 'de-risk' from China, but business is reluctant

A worker at Munk Group in Günzburg, Germany, punches holes into a part that will be used to construct a ladder. After years of using Chinese suppliers, Munk Group recently decided to cut off all business with China. Germany's government has cautioned all German businesses to be careful about not depending too heavily on China, a strategy known as "de-risking."
Rob Schmitz/NPR
A worker at Munk Group in Günzburg, Germany, punches holes into a part that will be used to construct a ladder. After years of using Chinese suppliers, Munk Group recently decided to cut off all business with China. Germany's government has cautioned all German businesses to be careful about not depending too heavily on China, a strategy known as "de-risking."

GÜNZBURG, Germany — The glowing finger at the end of a robotic arm blazes across a ribbon of aluminum, welding holes in one of 2,000 ladder parts that will be constructed at an assembly line run by the Munk Group in southern Germany.

Factories like this one dot the landscape in rural Bavaria, home to hundreds of Mittelstand companies: private, family-owned enterprises that make up the backbone of Europe's largest economy. Ferdinand Munk's family has built ladders here for 120 years, long enough to understand who's worth doing business with.

"We started doing business with China two decades ago," Munk says. "The German government encouraged us to cooperate with Chinese firms. They told us it would be a win-win scenario."

Twenty years later, the German government has changed its tune on China.

"The German government is not in any position to bail out German companies invested in China," warned Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at a national security strategy meeting in June. That echoed new language employed by the European Union, which labeled China "an economic competitor and a systemic rival."

Baerbock's comments signaled a new strategy toward China that the government calls "de-risking."

The then-foreign minister of China quickly shot back, warning his German counterparts that "de-risking" could mean "de-opportunity," "de-cooperation," "destabilizing" and "de-development."

But for CEO Munk, doing business with China became de-pressing.

"One day, we placed a big order, paid for it upfront, and they didn't deliver it," Munk says. "We called them, no answer. We flew to China and when we got to the factory, everybody was gone. There was just a single guard at the gate. The company disappeared and we never saw our money again."

Munk now pays more for the peace of mind that comes with European suppliers he trusts.

Trust — whether it's over parts for a ladder factory or around national security — is at the heart of why CEOs and Western governments have distanced themselves, or "de-risked," from China.

Much of German industry remains reluctant to leave the world's largest market behind

An hour's drive south of the ladder factory, workers on another factory floor make steel cable. This plant is in the medieval town of Memmingen, and the company that makes these cables began making rope hundreds of years ago.

"Four hundred and forty-four years," says Gerhard Pfeifer, CEO of Pfeifer Group. "We are among the oldest companies in Germany."

Pfeifer traces his family's business back to 1579, when his ancestors made rope. After World War II, the company switched to steel cable. Now Pfeifer's cables help hold up SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.; they're used to pull elevators to the top of the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai; and they're inside thousands of buildings in China, where Pfeifer began doing business in 2004.

Those visits to China in the early 2000s convinced Pfeifer the country was key to his company's future.

"And, until today, I'm convinced that avoiding contact with China is impossible," he says.

Pfeifer considers China far too large to ignore, and he thinks most Western politicians misunderstand the country. He's learned that China has a different approach to the world than many in the West.

"Chinese behavior is much more linked to interests without a moral link," he says. "And this is necessary to understand. When we talk to the Chinese, we need to have a very clear understanding of our interests."

Gerhard Pfeifer, CEO of Pfeifer Group, stands on the factory floor at his company's headquarters in Memmingen, Germany. Pfeifer's company has been in his family for 444 years, and is one of the oldest companies in Germany. Since 2001, Pfeifer has understood that China would be an integral part of his business of making steel cables.
/ Rob Schmitz/NPR
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Rob Schmitz/NPR
Gerhard Pfeifer, CEO of Pfeifer Group, stands on the factory floor at his company's headquarters in Memmingen, Germany. Pfeifer's company has been in his family for 444 years, and is one of the oldest companies in Germany. Since 2001, Pfeifer has understood that China would be an integral part of his business of making steel cables.

Pfeifer says the lack of mutual understanding is most obvious when German officials visit China. While the Chinese carefully lay out their interests to their German counterparts, says Pfeifer, German representatives often, in his eyes, appear more eager to voice their Western-shaped moral judgments of the Chinese.

"We, with our foreign minister, we are going to China and we want to hold onto a flag of [Western] morality, which is just crazy," says Pfeifer, "because they do not have a sense for this kind of morality because it's not part of their culture."

Pfeifer says it doesn't help that, unlike the Chinese, Germany's government, made up of three political parties, doesn't agree internally on its own country's interests. And that's why he thinks German businesses are largely ignoring the official call to de-risk.

Numbers seem to back Pfeifer up: In 2022, Chinese imports to Germany grew by 34%, and Germany's three largest automakers — Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen — continue to sell more than a third of all their cars to the Chinese.

At a recent event, the CEO of Mercedes-Benz said de-risking meant not reducing the company's presence in China, but increasing it.

Politicians who support de-risking watch nervously as German business expands in China

"To be honest, I would say for the German car industry, they are so heavily involved in the Chinese market I cannot see an economically feasible and viable way out for them," says Norbert Röttgen, a member of Germany's parliament and former chair of the parliament's committee on foreign affairs.

He says Germany's past reliance on Russia for energy, now widely viewed as a strategic blunder, is a fraction of the dependency his country has on China.

"If a conflict occurred and we would have to withdraw or we would see counter-sanctions from China against Germany, the damage would be disastrous and devastating for part of the German industry," he warns.

But unlike his coalition partners, Chancellor Olaf Scholz does not seem to be placing the potential threat of China in the same bucket as that of Russia.

In November 2022, he was the first Western leader to visit Beijing during the coronavirus pandemic, accompanied by a delegation of CEOs from Germany's biggest companies. De-risking wasn't on their agenda.

"There's some disconnect between the political rhetoric that you see in Europe and in Germany right now and what entrepreneurs have been doing all along," says Michael Schumann, chair of the German Federal Association for Economic Development and Foreign Trade. "If you are an entrepreneur, you always had to deal with risk and you always had to deal with what now is hyped as 'de-risking.' "

Schumann blames the new political rhetoric aimed at China on the Green Party, which is hawkish on China and whose highest-ranking member, Annalena Baerbock, is Germany's foreign minister. He says the Greens' stance on China has been accepted by many in Germany's parliament.

"Quite a lot of members of parliament in Germany right now, they have very little knowledge of China," says Schumann. "They've never been there. All they know is what they read in the media, and of course that is quite often polarizing."

Schumann says if Berlin politicians, their advisers and German media had more China expertise, "the discussion would probably not have gone into this direction."

He says the real China experts in Germany can be found among the ranks of hundreds of German companies doing business in China daily: companies like Pfeifer's construction business.

Pfeifer says the sentiment behind de-risking is a good one, but it must come from understanding where the risks lie, something he thinks Germany's government has yet to fully grasp.

"Being sensitive to China is absolutely necessary, no doubt about that," says Pfeifer. "But if I start 'de-risking' while getting less in contact, then this is, from my understanding, the wrong way, because then I miss opportunities to understand China."

And taking the time to understand China, says Pfeifer, is the best thing Germany can do to help de-risk itself from China.

Esme Nicholson contributed to this report from Berlin.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Schmitz
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.