Written by Dr Nora Sausmikat.

The European Union and China are currently discussing a bilateral investment treaty as a result of an ongoing enforcement of mutual economic interest in each other. On his recent Europe trip in March, Xi Jinping and Angela Merkel declared to lift German-Chinese relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

This new partnership as well as the treaty could help to calm down and administer the conflicts on unfair trading practices between the EU and China. It can also add more fuel to the conflict. Both regions need each other, are dependent on each other, and it is for sure no easy task to act always according to the fine rules of high level diplomacy. But these economic and political conflicts also do affect the people in both regions. Therefore, EU-level people-to-people dialogues are a useful instrument and help to build common grounds for mutual help and collaboration.

Nevertheless, in this process, NGOs are still playing a minor role. The dialogues focus on science and culture. At the same time, the number of transnational impacts and overlapping citizens’ concerns are on the rise. Not only climate change, but also environmental protection in general, sustainable production, food safety, or social justice are high on the agenda for NGOs – just to name a few.

Insofar, it makes sense to build up structures for NGO collaboration. After six years of being involved in EU-China civil society dialogues I have to confess: EU-China/China-EU NGO collaboration is a highly valuable instrument but need much more support and helping hands.

Collaboration could just mean to work with each other to do a task,[1]  a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together to realize shared goals — for example, by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. The Cultural Compass describes cultural exchanges as

“…dancing hand in hand. People must have the other’s hand in their own hand, or on the waist, they must look into the eyes, understand and appreciate each   other, together find the rhythm that suits them both, then could they together          create the most beautiful and joyful dance. During the process, one might step      on the other’s foot, but it is the only way of learning to cooperate and dance     together.”[2]

Reaching the same understanding of collaboration seems to be even a difficult task-even in a mono-cultural context. However, it is worthwhile. When European participants of the new EU-China NGO twinning programme listened to their counterparts in Southwest China they could not help but to shout: why didn’t we came in contact with these highly interesting and active people and organisations earlier?

The twinning programme aims to build up sustainable partnerships between NGOs from both regions by sending one staff member for 1-2 month to a partner organization to learn and exchange on a joint topic. Dialogue and cooperation entails a lot of opportunities and challenges. To stress the opportunities and minimize the challenges we need to take care for several important basic conditions. Previous NGO dialogue programmes have shown that the fundamental structures to build partnerships between European and Chinese NGOs are missing and have yet to be created.

First, there are very little German / European NGOs with explicit reference China, nor an awareness of how important the China reference is for NGOs in Europe.

Secondly, there is a big knowledge gap between the activities of Chinese NGOs and associations and their image in Europe. Third, there are no contacts between European and Chinese organizations.

Thirdly, there are many stereotypes and great skepticism governing the self-perception and China/Europe images. In our past civil society dialogues we learned that conference-based dialogues can help to surpass stereotypes which govern the self-perception and China images of old and new activists in European associations and organizations.

Fourthly, the big challenge of language barriers and missing contacts should be surpassed by special trainings and the establishment of specialized EU-China/China-EU NGO centers.

Fifthly, the aims of the concrete collaboration should be also of special importance. To give one example: Citizens groups have many difficulties in China to defend the labour rights of migrant workers who just received their recognition as part of the working class. Therefore, labour NGOs try to facilitate their integration into the cities and using this “service” to defend their rights. But since it is very difficult to establish an association for defending these rights, many turn to individual labour lawyers which again cause other problems. Collaboration with migrant workers experienced groups from Europe could help to identify useful strategies how to address these problems and to identify the global aspect of local problems.

Finally, the most decisive step seems to be a communication on “Who are we” and how do we work. Precondition for a good and sustainable partnership seems to be familiarity with each other.

The first six years of EU-China NGO dialogues helped to open the door for future interest of NGOs in China and potential collaborations. Institutionalize NGO partnership for sustainable relationships and collaboration is the aim of the EU-China NGO twinning programme.[3]

Economically, the EU and China are getting closer together. Besides general political and economic interests, it seems necessary to also listen to the people who taste the results of these first two collaborations. This could help to build a peaceful and much more sustainable world.

About the author

Nora Sausmikat holds a post PhD in Sinology, studied in Chengdu/ P.R. China and Berlin, and works as project manager, free-lance television and radio consultant, and academic author and lecturer.  Her main research fields are Civil Society, political reform, biographical memory, the role of intellectuals, and Chinese women’s studies.


[1] Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 11th Edition. Retrieved September 18, 2012 from CollinsDictionary.com.

[2] Shen Qilan Foreword, in: Katja Hellkötter, Roman Wilhelm, European-Chinese Cultural Compass, Goethe-Institut Beijing, 2011, p. 11.

[3] Stiftung Asienhaus 2014, EU-China NGO Twinning Exchange, Available online: http://www.eu-china-twinning.org. Accessed 9 May 2014.