“This used to be the richest city in Germany,” said Michael Suessmuth, a logistics-company manager and lifelong Duisburger, standing on the site of a former steel plant. “But then they failed to branch out.”
Now Duisburg is a symbol of postindustrial ruin. Steel prices dropped in the 1970s and 1980s, thanks to a global glut of production, and more than 100,000 jobs disappeared. Unemployment remains high to this day; the city’s biggest attraction is the iron skeleton of an abandoned steel-and-coal plant that was turned into a park; and, in the Marxloh district, criminal clans regularly produce national headlines.
But on the other side of the world, powerful people are convinced that the city’s glory days still lie ahead. Duisburg has emerged as a central hub in China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, a plan to create China-friendly economic hubs along crucial transport routes in more than 60 countries.
For that purpose, Duisburg is perfect: It boasts a massive inland port that connects roads and railway networks with the Rhine, Europe’s busiest river. The city hopes that becoming an integral part of China’s plans will persuade Chinese companies to invest broadly there, result in an expansion of the port and perhaps even lead to joint research initiatives.
“To Duisburg, being part of this project really is sort of a miracle that’s suddenly fallen down from heaven,” said Markus Taube, a professor of East Asian economic studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
But Chinese investment may not work out the way the city hopes. While China touts the Belt and Road as a new global network of easy trade and easy money, it is often criticized as a way to boost Chinese companies with big contracts and tie foreign nations to Beijing through commerce and debt.
Indeed, Duisburg has so far attracted few Chinese investments that go beyond logistics. And critics fear Duisburg is remaking itself to become dependent on China’s economic needs rather than its own — and setting itself up for another bust rather than a sustained boom.
Germany’s China city
Duisburg officials have sought close ties to China since the 1980s, when they formed a cultural partnership with the city of Wuhan. China also was interested in the lessons being learned by Duisburg and other cities in the Ruhr Valley, Germany's coal-and-steel heartland, as they transitioned painfully away from heavy industry.
“But until 2013, there really wasn’t much to the Duisburg-China relations apart from symbolism,” Taube said.
That year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping unveiled the $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative. He subsequently announced investment deals with or loans to partner countries and cities across the globe, including Duisburg. Now the city is a critical part of China’s network.
The number of Chinese trains arriving and departing at Duisburg’s rail hub every week has risen from an average of three in 2014 to 30 today, and city officials hope that number will rise to 50 in the next two years. “Our business here is booming so much that we can barely keep up,” Suessmuth said.
The goods arriving in Duisburg are not only reloaded here but often also repackaged or processed, which has added more jobs than transportation hubs normally create. Suessmuth’s company has added dozens of employees, and 40,000 jobs now depend on the port.
The number of Chinese companies registered in the city — now around 100 — also has risen sharply. The clear majority of them are connected to the logistics industry, but city officials hope that investments in high-tech enterprises and other industries will follow.
“We’re already noticing that more Chinese companies without a logistics background are moving here or considering to do so,” said Johannes Pflug, Duisburg’s China envoy.
In theory, the benefits could go beyond jobs. Duisburg officials hope to turn the city into the most important German destination for Chinese academics, investors and politicians. "We want to become Germany's 'China city,' and we're headed the right way," said Sören Link, Duisburg's mayor.
An uneasy partnership
But if Duisburg achieves that goal, it would be an outlier. Experts caution that China invests in Western countries for much the same reasons it does in developing ones: to create financial dependencies that ensure political support and access to resources.
In Africa, Chinese investments have provoked grievances “from poor compliance with safety and environmental standards to unfair business practices and violations of local laws,” the Council on Foreign Relations found in a recent assessment. Other developing nations, most recently Malaysia, have voiced concerns about or even canceled major Chinese infrastructure projects, fearing the consequences of exploding costs and risky loans — and the lack of rewards for the local economy.
In Europe, the Chinese have another objective, as well: gaining access to valuable Western technology. Under its “Made in China 2025” plan, Beijing hopes to reinvent itself as a high-tech juggernaut and become the global leader in at least 10 key industries, including green-energy vehicles, artificial intelligence and robotics. Buying Western technological know-how is part of that plan.
“There are a lot of concerns about the Chinese acquiring niche companies and transferring sophisticated European technology back to China," said Jan Weidenfeld, a senior researcher with the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies. "Once that’s completed, China may eventually decide to shut those companies in Europe entirely.” The Chinese embassy in Berlin did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post.
The United States, along with some other European governments, has recently used the same argument to block several Chinese attempts to acquire computer-chip makers and other high-tech companies. Germany announced in early August that it would change its own rules to give the government increased ability to stop controversial foreign acquisitions — a move that would mostly target Chinese investors.
There are also political fears. A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations noted that competing for Chinese investments could weaken existing political blocs or partnerships, effectively allowing Beijing to divide and conquer. A Pentagon report released in August echoed concerns that recipients of Belt and Road money might "shape their interests to align with China’s, and deter confrontation or criticism of China’s approach to sensitive issues.”
In 2012, for example, China launched an economic forum of 16 Central and Eastern European nations called the “16+1” initiative. The formation of that group has raised concerns about Chinese influence on the continent, especially after Hungary and Greece, both 16+1 members, blocked an E.U. statement two years ago that was critical of Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
As China works to expand its railway links, Duisburg representatives hope that the E.U. and major Western nations will push China to break its usual patterns. During his visit to China in January, French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to acknowledge that desire. “These roads cannot be those of a new hegemony, which would transform those that they cross into vassals,” he said.
“If we don’t develop a policy regarding China, then China will succeed in dividing Europe,” warned Germany’s then-foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, last year.
Filling the gap
Meanwhile, skepticism also abounds about the United States, Western Europe’s longtime partner of choice.
European exports to the United States have fallen for decades while Asia has become a more important market. And under President Trump, who has threatened the European Union with tariffs, trade relations between Washington and Europe have grown more uncertain.
“What Trump is doing right now is a gift to the Chinese," said Taube, the East Asian economics professor. "To them this is a competition for global hegemony, and they think what he’s doing right now will strengthen them in the long run, even if it may hurt right now."
Concerns about Trump, plus the economic realities, may lead more European leaders to eventually shelve their concerns about China. But the only body that could realistically negotiate common rules for Chinese investments in Europe or financial contributions to Belt and Road projects remains the E.U., where a broad consensus would be needed to agree on a new strategy.
Such a consensus is still far from reality. “The E.U. is completely failing on this front,” said Pflug, Duisburg’s China envoy. “As long as the Europeans have no joint position, you can’t really blame the Chinese for pushing ahead.”
And in the meantime, as its rivals move to snap up Chinese largesse, Duisburg plans to push along with them.