Sometimes Sebastian Heilmann has a pretty long journey to work – some 7,400 kilometres, or ten hours by plane. That’s how far it is between Berlin and Beijing, a trip the political scientist generally has to make every two months. And then, just a few days later, he flies back again. While he is in China, Heilmann’s days are packed: he travels around the country; he talks to Chinese academics, business leaders, officials, artists and dissidents; he keeps in contact with Germans in China, including with the German embassy – in short, he gathers information that could help people in Germany to understand China, its 1.3 billion or so inhabitants, and current events taking place there.
China’s rise to become one of the world’s key players is resulting in a far-reaching shift in international power, market and communication structures, something that also has consequences for Germany. The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) analyses the political, economic, social, technological and ecological developments in China and their international impact. In this way, the aim is to enrich and broaden the German view of China
What are the objectives?
MERICS is an independent research centre that makes the results and findings of its contemporary and practical research into China publicly available. MERICS informs decision-makers from politics, business and society and acts as a constant point of contact for the media. In this way, MERICS is keen to paint a nuanced picture of the world’s most populous country, to influence public debate and to deepen Chinese expertise in Germany and Europe.
How will this be achieved?
The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) is a research and analysis institute (or think tank) based in Berlin. Once fully established, MERICS will be the biggest institution in Europe to conduct research into and communicate knowledge about contemporary China. Its research is concentrated on four fields:
In its research on contemporary China, MERICS cooperates with universities and research institutions in Germany and abroad. Through its own fellowship programme, MERICS involves leading academics and political advisers from China, Europe and the USA in its work.
How is the project organized?
The Berlin-based offices of the non-profit MERICS GmbH organizes the research work and is responsible for external communication. The institute’s director and CEO is Sebastian Heilmann, a professor of comparative government specialized in East Asia and the politics and economy of China at Trier University. Its commercial director is Bettina Bubnys, who was previously responsible for international relations at Bertelsmann Stiftung in her role as project director. A board of high-ranking trustees such as Thomas Bagger, head of policy planning at the Federal Foreign Office, and Kai Strittmatter, the China correspondent at Süddeutsche Zeitung, advises the MERICS management team on strategic matters. Furthermore, an international research council is to advise the management team on focal areas in China-related research and support international research exchange.
“We want to obtain a nuanced picture of China and influence policy-making”, explains Heilmann, a professor of comparative government who specializes in East Asia and the politics and economy of China. By “we” he means the experts at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), a Berlin-based research and analysis institute established on the initiative of Stiftung Mercator in 2013. Heilmann is its director. Just back from Beijing, he now sits at the conference table in his office, his shirt sleeves rolled up.
Apart from a vase decorated in Chinese style there is little in his office to remind one of the subject of his research – no charming photos showing a bit of local Chinese colour, no Asian handicraft adorning the walls. “We are a research institute, not a cultural or friendship organization”, says Heilmann, clearly reading our thoughts. The professor points to a display board on which the MERICS logo is emblazoned, an infinite yellow-and-red band that appears to be billowing as if it were alive. It is supposed to represent “an agile organism that is willing to change”, explains Heilmann, which is just what MERICS is: an academic institution that devotes itself with flexibility to all key developments in China, rather than a bureaucratic organization with rigid structures and a preconceived and possibly romanticized view of China.
Around 30 permanent staff spent their days gathering together and analysing information in four areas – politics, business, society, and innovation and the environment. In addition, there are visiting researchers who are invited to Berlin for temporary periods. To this end, Stiftung Mercator is providing a total of 18.4 million euros in funding until 2018. MERICS is the biggest institution in Europe to conduct research into and communicate knowledge about contemporary China. The experts at the institute’s Berlin offices not only analyse the official Chinese media but also review the more open blogs that play an important role in opinion-forming. It is pure coincidence that the Chinese embassy is no great distance away from MERICS’ offices in the centre of Berlin – although there is contact between the two, there is no regular exchange and professional distance is the order of the day.
“Our objective is to establish a solid foundation that will allow questions relating to China to be judged and assessed more accurately – especially by decision-makers in Germany. We achieve this through structured knowledge transfer, public relations and international exchange”, explains Heilmann. It is important that the institute should not be an ivory tower concerning itself with marginal issues, he adds. Instead, the scholars at MERICS respond to queries from business, society – which explicitly includes the media – and politics. “Practical expertise on China”, is how Heilmann describes it. Current questions of interest include the following: what will be the consequences for the euro given that it will soon be possible for the Chinese yuan to be traded on the financial exchanges? How will the Chinese government react to international challenges like the Ukraine crisis? How is China tackling air pollution, one of the country’s most pressing environmental problems?
The institute’s findings are presented in workshops, panel discussions and lectures, while a weekly newsletter contains information about the latest developments in China. From time to time, the MERICS experts also have an opportunity to address an audience of millions – as was the case recently when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Germany and the ARD Tagesschau news programme asked the MERICS director for his opinion live on air.
From the programme’s Hamburg studio, Tagesschau presenter Michail Paweletz wanted to know what the significance was of Xi arriving in Germany with a delegation of 100 business representatives – Heilmann, a picture of the Brandenburg Gate behind him, gave his response from the ARD’s Berlin studio, explaining that this was certainly an indication that China was heralding in a new phase of economic relations with Europe, and particularly with Germany, and that China no longer wished to be merely a trading partner but was also planning to invest. He went on to say that the German business community could expect some lively exchanges with their Chinese counterparts, and that there is considerable interest on the Chinese side, especially in the areas of mechanical engineering, environmental technologies and medical technology. All of this is information that will doubtless be of practical use to German companies. How was it that Heilmann so aptly described his work and that of his colleagues in our interview? “Practical expertise on China”.