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2021-04-06 
Mechthild Leutner with her former classmates Zhang Yanling (left) and Zang Jian at the entrance of Peking University in this 1992 file photo. The German Sinologist studied in the university in the 1970s.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Leading Sinologist points to crucial role of educational, cultural links in China's development, Alexis Hooi reports.

Editor's note: Many people from overseas have made a contribution to China's development over the years. As China celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, China Daily looks at the lives and contributions of these friends from afar, who've not only witnessed, but also participated in, the country's transformation over the years.

When German Sinologist Mechthild Leutner arrived at Peking University in the mid-1970s, it marked her journey through the "gateway to China" toward a lifelong understanding and analysis of the country's development.

"On the one hand, PKU itself was and is in constant development, a small social microcosm in which China's social developments are reflected, but also already hinted at," she says.

"On the other hand, it is the university staff, starting with academics and students, to colleagues in the international office and the libraries, to the various management levels, who have supported me in many ways in 'walking through the door', in analyzing Chinese developments."

Leutner is a historian and professor of Sinology at the Free University of Berlin. A pioneer and leading figure of China-related women's studies, social history and German colonial history in China, Leutner was one of the first West German students at Peking University in 1974-75. The elite educational institution has recorded her formative experiences there under a major oral history book project.

Taking stock of China's development in an increasingly interconnected world, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China which marks its centenary this year, Leutner says her links with the university reflect the importance of academic partnerships as "bridges between societies".

"Cooperation is a central concept for me. Cooperation has always been important and is becoming more important every day, not only for me but for many people, in academia as well as in business and politics. The world is globally interconnected in all areas, and we are all part of this interconnectedness and gain from it," she says.

"This experience of mine is very much based on the long-standing academic collaborations that I have been able to realize together with colleagues, but also on the university exchange between Peking University and Free University of Berlin, which has now existed for 40 years and has been successively expanded over the decades.

"I still remember the very helpful support of my history professor Zhang Jiqian in researching my master's thesis on the historian Jian Bozan when I was a German exchange student at PKU in 1974-75. In the 1980s, I was able to complete all my research and fieldwork for my postdoctoral thesis on 'Birth, marriage, and death in Beijing. Popular culture and elite culture from the 19th century to the present', with great support from the university administration and historians and political scientists at PKU. Especially the then Party secretary Wang Xuezhen, the historian Zhang Zhilian and the political scientist Zhao Baoxu made a great effort to enable me to conduct my field research in the surrounding rural areas at an early stage, to attend weddings there and to conduct interviews," Leutner says.

"Starting in the 1990s, I collaborated intensively with my former fellow student Zang Jian, who works as a historian at PKU, in the field of women's studies and social history and organized workshops and publications together with colleagues from Free University and Peking University."

Leutner's work from the early stages of China's development drive, particularly through reform and opening-up, has allowed her to witness the unprecedented achievements in areas ranging from industrialization to poverty alleviation.

"I remember China in the 1970s. It was a very poor country, two-thirds of the population barely had enough to eat," she says.

"For me, China's greatest success is that it was much more successful in fighting poverty than any other developing country. Related to this were the great efforts of the people to develop the economy, primarily through industrialization, and to promote education and science very much. Central to this was the idea that people's standard of living should be raised.

"This leap to a modern developed country with a secure standard of living for all has been achieved by China, also, of course, through the country's involvement in the international community and networking with other countries, other societies and academic communities on many levels."

Leutner conducts field research in the 1980s by interviewing a Beijing resident, covering topics such as birth and marriage for her book.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Learning advantage

The scholar highlighted the country's emphasis on education, among other fundamentals, behind China's success.

"Some factors for this success certainly lie in historical and cultural factors, such as the Confucian tradition, which gives education a very high priority, and the early technological-economic level: The country was already highly developed economically and culturally in the Song era (960-1279)," she says.

"In addition to these factors, there has been a huge effort by politics and society to build a modern country, especially since the reform and opening-up policy of 1978. A comprehensive yet flexible state development strategy, legitimized by broad popular support, has coordinated these efforts by all.

"The historical factors, like the political factors of success, are China-specific. In their complexity, they cannot simply be transferred to other countries with entirely different conditions. But it is also important for other countries to take a close look at the experiences China has made in the past decades to see whether and in what form something can also be learned from these experiences.

"Each country has its own particularities, resulting from its history and from the current political and social structures. However, some development strategies, such as raising the level of education, urbanization, infrastructure development, and above all, the need to combat poverty and raise people's standard of living and offer them a decent life, should be important goals, especially for developing countries," Leutner says.

"Here, China offers experience that can be taken up and modified and further developed for their own development."

Leutner, a historian and professor of Sinology at the Free University of Berlin.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Maintaining priorities

China must also continue to focus on its people to maintain its development path, she says.

"The well-being of people in a peaceful world should remain the central social and political goal of a country. This includes ensuring the most important necessities of life, a fair social and educational system, sustainable protection of the environment and averting the climate catastrophe. This can only be achieved by working together. The maximization of profits for individuals, the exploitation of natural resources and human labor for the benefit of the few stand contrary to these goals," Leutner says.

"It is important to continue to reduce social inequalities and injustices, to bring all people in urban and rural areas along through convincing policies, in order to continue to ensure stability. Stability is important for China itself, but also in international relations and in the global context. Ensuring peace in the world and the need for global multilateral cooperation is essential for all mankind."

The CPC's approach, including its ability to adapt to changes, puts it in good stead to face those challenges, she says.

"Since 1978, the CPC has been shaping China's development strategy, always adapting it to the changing new national and international conditions, and also mastering difficult challenges. This adaptability and mastering challenges to ensure the well-being of the people, such as now in the coronavirus crisis, are important moments of the CPC's success."

Strengthening ties

Moving forward, continued dialogue and exchange, such as those between her country and China, will become even more important, Leutner says.

"German-Chinese relations have developed intensively and very fruitfully for both sides, especially since the 1990s. This applies to all areas: the economy, politics and also science. Both the pandemic and global tendencies toward protectionism and separation pose new challenges for relations, which must be resolved through dialogue in the interest of the well-being of the people in both Germany and China," she says.

"Instead of relying on cliches and negative images of China in Germany that date back to colonial times and the Cold War period, the focus must be on mutual acceptance, dialogue and exchange on an equal footing, and strengthening cooperation in order to solve the world's major problems: the pandemic crisis, the threat of a climate catastrophe, the global security problems, the food crisis emerging in a number of countries-these are tasks that can only be solved together. Germany and China can also make a joint contribution here."

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