The Long March: Planned Chinatown Raises Hackles in Rural Germany

By Markus Feldenkirchen in Oranienburg, Germany

A Chinese businessman who plans to build Germany's first Chinatown in the eastern state of Brandenburg is learning about German bureaucracy the hard way. Used to instant approval in China, his project has been mired in planning for three years.

A German man and a Chinese couple are walking across an old airport in Brandenburg, discussing whether the pagodas that they hope to build here should be seven or 13 stories tall.

The Chinese man favors 13. The taller the better, he says.

But seven is the maximum, says the German, adding that regulatory restrictions need to be taken into account. "We wouldn't get the building permits," he says.

"In China, where we come from, you can build as high as you want," says the Chinese man. His wife nods.

The group eventually agrees to shelve the pagoda issue for a later date. It's a nice day, and they don't want to destroy the euphoria of the day's events. The city council in the town of Oranienburg has just approved a plan for the construction of Germany's first Chinatown at the decommissioned airport, an almost 80-hectare (198-acre) site.

Mr. Ren, the Chinese investor, and Mr. Kunigam, the German engineer, hope to transform the old airport next to a motorway into a Little China. According to their plans, within a few years 2,000 Chinese will be living and working here, in 7-story or in 13-story pagodas.

Kunigam comes to a stop in front of some underbrush and an empty bottle of schnapps lying in the bushes. This, he says, is precisely where the entrance gate will be. He envisions a bold design, like that of the gate to the Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai, where he once fell in love while on a group trip. He draws an X in the gravel with his shoe. "This is where China will begin," he says. Then he pulls a blueprint out of his pocket and unfolds it as it flaps in the wind. The heading on the blueprint reads "Oranienburg China Area - Master Plan." The gardens are drawn in green, the squares in yellow and the pagodas in red.

"The Forbidden City, our cultural center, will be here at the front," says the engineer, pointing in the direction of a nearby forest. "And there will be a Peking opera there," says Mr. Ren.

He points to the highway -- where two trucks are jockeying into position -- which will be hidden by a replica of the Great Wall of China, five meters (16 feet) high, to protect the city to the west, north and south. The wall will be wide enough so that people can walk on it, just as they do in China.

They fold up the blueprint again. It took almost three years, but now that the city officials have finally approved the plan, it can become a reality. They have been given the go-ahead to purchase the property. The next step is to put together a "project-specific development plan."

To this end, Hongbin Ren and his Zhaohui have joined forces with Stefan Kunigam and his business partner to form a company called Brandenburg-China-Projekt Management GmbH. Kunigam runs an engineering firm in the eastern city of Frankfurt an der Oder. Mr. Ren is said to have good connections to the Chinese government.

On this summer day, Ren is wearing a white linen shirt with embroidered Chinese characters. He says that the site is ideal, "even from a feng shui perspective." Then he sticks a blade of grass into his ear.

They stop in front a weathered sign lying on the ground with Cyrillic characters on it -- a relic from the days when this was still East Germany, when the Soviets operated a military airport here. The Russians, says Mr. Ren, were responsible for a dark chapter in German history, but soon the Chinese chapter will begin, and it promises to be a bright one.

Wooing a Half-Billion Euro Investment

Mr. Ren doesn't like to discuss his businesses, but Hans-Joachim Laesicke is convinced that he has nothing to hide. Laesicke, the city's mayor, is sitting at his oak desk. He says that he is open to China, very open, in fact. "As the city of Oranienburg, we must take a very proactive approach here," he says. He asked the director of his planning office to look into the Chinese businessman's background. The planning director asked around in German-Chinese business circles, and what he discovered set him at ease. Mr. Ren, the sources said, is known within these circles, knows many investors from China and has half a billion dollars in investment capital lined up.

The Chinese embassy also supports the project. In fact, there is no reason to doubt that it is indeed a serious project. The problem is of a different nature.

Laesicke's office is on the third floor of the Oranienburg Palace, a magnificent structure that 19th-century German novelist and poet Theodor Fontane described with great enthusiasm in his travel diary "Walks in the March of Brandenburg" ("Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg").

Laesicke is a great fan of Fontane, and he is just as passionate about being Oranienburg's mayor. He has spent the last 14 years fighting for this city of 41,000, but despite his efforts, he has been unable to prevent Oranienburg, 35 kilometers (22 miles) north of Berlin, from being largely passed over by the country's economic recovery.

He is a jovial man, bearded and rotund. Hanging on the wall is a striking photograph of Willy Brandt, a former chancellor and leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) for more than two decades, with a mandolin on his arm and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Laesicke, who refused to become a party member during the East German era, joined the SPD because of Brandt and, as he says, because he wanted to make a difference.

Laesicke had heard a lot about globalization, but only about things that were happening someplace else, someplace far away. Globalization had nothing to do with Oranienburg. Indeed, Laesicke felt fortunate that his city had managed to retain some of its local businesses, including an excavating company and a manufacturer of cardboard tubes.

But now Laesicke wants to claim his own piece of the globalization pie. He doesn't want to complain about a world that is constantly getting faster and more complex. There is already enough complaining going on in Germany, he says, especially in the east. Instead of complaining, he wants his city to be a winner in the globalization game.

Kunigam, the engineer, and Mr. and Mrs. Ren first met with Laesicke on Dec. 15, 2005, at 11 a.m. The mayor liked the Chinatown idea, but he had a 1:15 appointment to attend a memorial service for murdered Roma with the state's governor, Matthias Platzeck. When he looked at the Chinese couple sitting at his table, looking affable, Laesicke thought to himself: "If I leave now, I'll never see them again." He stayed.

Laesicke has never been to China, but he has done his homework. He reaches for a book titled "The China Code. How the Booming Middle Kingdom is Changing Germany." An image of a dragon hungrily wagging its tongue is on the cover. The book's message is that Germans should deal with China as soon as possible, "otherwise our grandchildren will ask us one day: Why did you miss out on the rise of China?" Laesicke doesn't want to miss out on anything.

Oranienburg's Chinatown could become a combination amusement park and natural museum. It would be a good fit in a world in which peoples are increasingly copying each other. Architects throughout China are currently building replicas of old European towns. Chinatown Oranienburg, it seems, would be the appropriate German response.

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