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.
If The Chinese Don't Come, Just Relocate them
Hongbin Ren's office is on the third floor of a nondescript concrete building in a business park in Berlin's Malzahn district. He stands in front of a map, tapping his finger on the location of the city of Harbin in northeastern China, near Russia. It's where Ren comes from.
He says that he first came to Germany on a business trip three years ago, when he met Zhaohui, who was a student in Stuttgart and speaks German. She is now his wife and interpreter.
Ren turns away from the map of China, walks across the vinyl floor and stands in front of a map of Europe, seeming to appraise it like a general. "We spent a long time looking for the right location for Chinatown, until we happened upon Oranienburg." He points to the northern port city of Lübeck. It's lunchtime, and Ren and his wife drive to a Chinese restaurant called "Center of the Earth." Orange lanterns hang in the window. A retired couple sits in a corner, eating sweet-and-sour duck.
"No one eats sweet-and-sour in China," says Mr. Ren, "at least not the way the Germans do." He says that he looks forward to helping Germans form a more realistic image of China.
Ren says that he has traveled widely in Europe. Not much can be expected of the English, he says; they are doomed to fail. The French lack discipline, he adds, and the Italians? Not even worth discussing. But the Germans, he concludes, are industrious, which is why Germany is the right place for his project. As he explains his plans, Mr. Ren tries to catch flies with his hand. He is visibly pleased when he catches one.
Some questions still remain unanswered. For example, who are the investors who will ultimately spend the €500 million ($782 million) on the project? Ren says that this is a question of discretion. No Chinese investor will come forward before the German political establishment guarantees that it will support the plan.
But where will the many Chinese come from? The plan calls for Chinese restaurants, businesses and culture, but all of that put together still doesn't make a Chinatown if there are no Chinese.
Mr. Ren says that there is no need to worry. If necessary, the mayor or Chancellor Angela Merkel will have to put their heads together with their counterparts from China and discuss resettling people. Ren, who only knows how things work in China, believes that things can be done the same way in Germany. In China the government can arrange almost anything by decree.
Mr. Ren now seems annoyed. He doesn't like all of these questions. He says that one should ask fewer questions and simply begin moving forward with the project. He catches another fly.
Ren's words reflect the belief that anything is possible, as well as the self-confidence of a country that has the world watching it intently with a mixture of fear and hope, a country with 1.3 billion people, and a country that craves prosperity.
The waitress brings a small plate with the check and fortune cookies. Mr. Ren breaks open his fortune cookie and pulls out a slip of paper that reads: "Getting started is the secret of moving forward."
His wife translates the saying, and he nods.
'An Incalculable Risk'
On May 21, 2007, Mr. and Mrs. Ren were sitting in the visitors' section of the Oranienburg city council, watching the council discuss their project. In the end, there were 20 votes in favor of his Chinatown and 8 opposed. Ren was somewhat disappointed over the no votes. At home in China, political decisions are usually unanimous. But then it was explained to him that 20 to 8 is an excellent result in a democratic system. He was also told that even though the opponents lost the vote, their arguments must be taken seriously.
Friedrich Seifert, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said that he was worried about a ghetto developing on Oranienburg's outskirts, a Chinese city existing alongside the German city. Chinatown, he added, is "an incalculable risk." Seifert was one of the eight votes against the project.
Seifert is sitting in his garden under a tree, as birds in the branches above deliver one of their last concerts of the year. He wears round glasses, looks friendly and speaks softly.
His life has been relatively straightforward until now. The building in which he now lives and works as an architect was once his school. His desk now stands where he used to sit in class in the first grade. He is a member of a vegetarian community that calls itself "Eden," an old group that once hoped to be able to meet its food requirements by growing fruit and vegetables. It was an attempt to enlist nature's help in becoming self-sufficient and independent of the outside world. And it was the opposite of globalization.
Eden still exists today, even though most members of the colony only farm their plots in their free time. But it has remained a home and a refuge for Seifert. And now the Chinese will be his new neighbors? "This Chinatown would be less than one kilometer away," he says, pointing over the fence.
He gets up and walks through his garden, past beds that are filled with herbs, strawberries, celery and radishes in the summer.
"We have no idea what kinds of people we will be dealing with," he says. Seifert says he is not xenophobic. But he has a deep connection to his home and his community, and he has become slightly apprehensive ever since the Chinese began appearing in the newspapers more frequently. He is afraid that he will soon be unable to recognize his own home.
The extreme right National Democratic Party (NPD) has been quick to take advantage of the fears of people like Seifert's. One day every mailbox in Oranienburg contained an NPD flyer that read: "Today you are tolerant, but tomorrow you will a stranger in your own country!" Next to the text was an eerie, almost ghost-like drawing of a Chinese man peering around the corner, with slanted eyes, buckteeth and a rice farmer's hat.
Even writer Theodor Fontane knew what kinds of emotions "the Chinaman" could stir among his fellow Germans. Fontane made a Chinese man the central figure of his novel "Effi Briest," even though the character never actually appears in the story. It is merely a spirit, a symbol of everything that is foreign and uncanny. As it pervades the novel, the Chinese spirit represents both the fears and longings of the title character, Effi.
Even in Fontane's day, the late 19th century, China was a country that sparked a yearning for adventure and exotic experiences among Germans. And yet it also elicited fears of the unknown.
For many people today, there is hardly anything more unsettling than China's loud awakening. Few know how to react, whether to isolate themselves, like Friedrich Seifert, or, like Mayor Laesicke, to embrace everything associated with China as a tremendous opportunity.
An Education in German Bureaucracy
When the city council approved the Chinatown concept, Ren thought that it meant that he had the go-ahead. He was ready to order bulldozers. But, as it turned out, the council had merely paved the way for the planning phase to continue. It was only a first step. Two weeks after the vote, Ren received a three-page letter from the city planning office explaining what he had to do next -- his homework, so to speak.
Now, he read, the conditions were in place "to begin the planning process on the basis of the provisions of the Federal Building Code." He had never heard of some the expressions he was reading, phrases like "spatial planning procedure," "development of the local public transport system" and "substantiated preliminary draft development plan." It was time for Mr. Ren to get to know the real Germany. Until then, he had seen the country as a place with good air, wide-open spaces and industrious people. He was about to encounter the invisible Germany, the land of ordinances and regulations.
He discovered that he would have to take "environmentally impact reports" into account, that "center tolerability reports" would be needed and that the city would -- naturally -- require a "noise tolerability assessment." He was also instructed to specify "planning companies for the development of the urban land-use plan."
Mr. Ren decided not to order his bulldozers just yet.
But he also ignored the letter, instead inviting the mayor to dinner at a restaurant, a "real Chinese restaurant, where the duck is still on the bone," as Laesicke later said. Perhaps Mr. Ren hoped a good duck would help him circumvent the Federal Building Code.
The next day he wrote an e-mail to the mayor, thanking him for the "wonderful evening" and his "friendly and vigorous support." He added that he would now search for "a sister city in China." Mr. Ren also had another request: "We would greatly appreciate it if your wife would accompany you to our next meeting. This will probably help us to reach a deeper understanding."
'When Someone Has Been Bitten by a Snake, He Is Afraid of it'
City officials were gradually becoming annoyed with the Chinese businessman's informal friendliness. They were also surprised that Mr. Ren had never responded to the three-page letter.
Then there was another meeting at the Oranienburg Palace. Laesicke had invited Mr. and Mrs. Ren to his office. The project had stalled, and both sides were now disappointed in each other.
Mr. Ren was disappointed because he believed that the price of the property was too high, and because building is so complicated in Germany. The city was disappointed because Mr. Ren hadn't done his homework. He hadn't even specified a planning company. Because of these disagreements, the mayor asked Paul Lösse of p4, a planning company, to attend the meeting. He also researched techniques for negotiating with the Chinese. It's important to use metaphors, he says today.
The purpose of the meeting was to clear up the controversial issues.
Lösse had brought along a projector ot show his presentation on the wall. The words "Project Chinatown" and a Chinese character were at the top of each page. After a while, Mr. Ren said "excuse me" and interrupted the presentation. He seemed irritated. He said that he didn't understand what Mr. Lösse was doing there, and why a planning company and this presentation were necessary in the first place.
"The character up there, what's it supposed to mean?" Ren asked.
"Umm," Lösse stammered, "I specifically asked my staff to search for a suitable Chinese character. Umm, I thought it meant 'success'."
"That's nonsense," said Mr. Ren. "We don't even have that character."
Then he ended the presentation and said that perhaps he would be in touch, and that he now wanted to speak with the mayor and the director of the city planning office alone. Lösse packed up his projector and left.
The Difference of Doing Business in a Democracy
Mr. Ren told them that he needed clarity for his investors. He said that when this type of project is on the table in China, the government states clearly how it plans to support the project, and then it guarantees the project's success. Ren told the German officials that he needed concrete answers from the State of Brandenburg and the City of Oranienburg on whether they would approve and promote the project.
But things are done a little differently in Germany, the mayor responded. Besides, he said, the state has become more wary after having subsidized many projects, after German reunification, that were ultimately botched. "In Germany we liken this experience to children being burned."
"Burned children," Mr. Ren mumbled. "In China we say: When someone has been bitten by a snake, he is afraid of it." But, he added, the fact that the Germans were bit once shouldn't prevent them from pursuing the project. He fidgeted in his chair. The pace of work was too slow, he said. Things would have to be speeded up.
"In China, a project worth €1.7 billion was recently approved in only three months," said Mr. Ren. "Our project has already taken three years."
This is the core of the conflict, this difference between a dictatorship in transition and a democracy. China's bureaucrats don't ask for things like central tolerability reports. Things may be more cumbersome in a democracy. They take longer, there are many people who have their say, and a wide range of concerns is taken into account, including those of local residents, retailers, skeptics like Mr. Seifert. Sometimes even the potential impact on frogs is a factor.
Democracy requires patience. Its results are rarely gigantic, but often solid. The fact that many are allowed to voice their opinions may be nerve-wracking, but it protects against the arbitrary behavior of a few people.
At some point Mr. Ren had one of his employees inquire at the town hall whether he would be permitted to build 13-story pagodas, or a real skyscraper, perhaps even the tallest building in Europe. The city officials managed to talk him out of his plan.
Laesicke seems at a loss. He still hasn't managed to explain Germany to his guest. Nothing is working, and so he reaches for a metaphor.
"Imagine that the two of us are both playing in an orchestra. Let's say you play the flute and I play the tuba." Mr. Ren looks intrigued. He mimics playing the flute with his fingers.
"We need a director so that we can make music together," Laesicke continues. "And the director, in our case, is a German. We have to play by German rules and laws. Otherwise there will be no music."
Laesicke is pleased with his metaphor, but realizes that it hasn't helped much. Mr. Ren smiles politely, and he keeps repeating that China and Germany are excellent partners, and that the future will be magnificent.
"Well, it doesn't look like we'll get much further today," Laesicke says. His powerful voice now seems drained. After the couple has left, he and his section head stay behind to discuss the meeting.
"They have a completely misguided notion about the power of a mayor," says Laesicke. "I'm not some Chinese Communist Party official." "Of course not," the section head says. "The tough thing about the Chinese is that you can't tell what they're thinking."
"Not at all," says Laesicke. "They always seem friendly when they talk, and everything is always copacetic. But then you stand there afterwards, the way we are now, and you're left asking yourself: What exactly did we resolve?"
"Nothing," says the section head. Exactly, says the mayor, "nothing."
Winter has come to Oranienburg, the euphoria from the previous summer has subsided, and the city is still waiting for the money and the development plan.
It will not happen as quickly as both sides had hoped in the beginning. They still want the project to succeed. But it has become far more cumbersome and complicated than both sides could have imagined.
Mr. Ren plans to fly to China soon to talk to investors. He hopes that everything can be settled by June, and that his bulldozers can finally show up.
Mayor Laesicke wants to believe the project will happen, and yet believing isn't as easy as it once was. But he is no longer convinced that Oranienburg will become a winner in the globalization game. He is periodically overcome by doubts. When that happens, the mayor says that perhaps the Chinese are a little different, after all.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan