Trade, technology transfer, and catch up: Sino-West German economic relations during the Cold War

For many years, the Federal Republic of Germany has been China’s biggest trading partner in Europe. The volume of Sino-German trade amounts to the total volume of China’s trade with the UK, France, and Italy. This is accompanied by massive technology transfers between these two countries. Founded both in 1949, the FRG (hereafter West Germany) and PRC belonged to different ideological camps of the divided world during the Cold War. The FRG established itself as an outpost of the anti-communist western camp in Europe, while China became a major Asian country in the socialist camp.

In the early period of the Cold War, the two countries had no formal diplomatic relations and vigorous trade embargos became the mainstream of bilateral economic and technological exchanges. China imported most West German goods from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), a country that West Germany tried to isolate since its establishment. Direct trade between China and West Germany became extremely difficult.

From the middle of the 1950s, the ice in bilateral trade relations started to thaw. West German was one of the first Western countries to quit the China Committee of the CoCom. Then, a trade delegation led by West German industrial tycoon Otto von Amerongen visited China in 1958, which successfully established the first quasi-official trade relations with the Chinese authority. Meanwhile, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) gradually loosened its control and discrimination trade policies against West Germany. As a result, the Sino-West German trade was given a strong boost, making it one of the most important trade relations of China in Europe. Based on the well-developed trade relations, the two countries began to deepen their political contacts in the early 1960s, which led to the establishment of governmental diplomatic relations in 1972. After the beginning of China’s reform era in 1978, West German trade, investment, and technology transfer greatly contributed to the latter’s industrialization and modernization. 
The current historiography of Sino-German relations pays little attention to the economic and technological exchanges during the Cold War. Most of them rely purely on West German sources and focused mainly on the policy of the West German government toward China. Meanwhile, the existing literature gravitates toward an emphasis on political, diplomatic, and cultural relations. Even in the growing body of global history and transnational history research, the debate about technology transfers, trade between China and Germany, and the economic dimensions of this relationship remains peripheral.

This study considers that economic exchanges with West Germany played a central role in the PRC’s trade, industrialization, reform, and opening up in the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, the exchanges during the 1950s and 1960s were also crucial and significant for both nations, albeit they are almost glossed over by existing literature. China now claims itself as “the only country in the world with a complete industrial system,” which, if it is correct, could not have been achieved without its massive economic exchange with West Germany. In this project, I aim to reconstruct the history of Chinese-West Germany relations from the perspectives of trade and technology transfer and document the first comprehensive archive-based history of this relationship.

For the first time, this project will draw on a wide assortment of archival sources, such as diplomatic, party, provincial, and enterprise files from both China and Germany, as well as diplomatic files from American sources. The development of Chinese-West Germany trade and technological relations will be traced until 1992, the end of German economic sanctions towards China. The research will incorporate both top-down and bottom-up perspectives by focusing on national leaders, diplomats on one hand, and transnational actors, such as traders, specialists, interns, and companies on the other. This project will highlight China’s economic and technological exchanges with West Germany and explore the origins of the former’s foreign economic policy and industrial policy, which still affect our world today.


Avatar Chen

Prof. Dr. Tao Chen


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