Connecting People & Ideas to Advance Mutual Interests in U.S.-Asia Relations

On May 31, 2023, the Mansfield Foundation convened a roundtable discussion featuring Dr. Axel Berkofsky, Associate Professor at the University of Pavia, Italy, and Co-Director of the Asia Centre at the Milan-based Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale. The roundtable discussion revolved around Dr. Berkofsky’s recent book, China-GDR Relations from 1949 to 1989 – The (Bad) Company You Keep, and the implications of his findings for contemporary EU-China relations.

Drawing extensively from archival material, Dr. Berkofsky focused on the historical events surrounding the relations between China and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from 1949 to 1989. He highlighted how the relationship was characterized by significant upheavals such as the Sino-Soviet split in 1960. In the aftermath of the rupture, China extracted scientists and other scholars from the GDR. Dr. Berkofsky pointed out this was because many East German scholars questioned USSR dominance and were sympathizers of Mao. Due to this perceived threat, in the 1960s, the East German state security service, Stasi, hardened security and took measures to prevent the smuggling of Chinese propaganda. However, the speaker also noted that the GDR used the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 1989 as an opportunity to repair relations with China. It was the first nation to congratulate China for cracking down on the protests, and reciprocally, Chinese newspapers reported the GDR’s collapse as a sign that there would be a third wave of socialism – not that it was failing. These historical contexts illustrated the shifting and complex relationship between the two nations.

In the contemporary context, Dr. Berkofsky underscored the increasing wariness within Germany and Europe more broadly about China’s growing influence and the changing dynamics of EU-China relations. He referenced the recent visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to China and the subsequent recalibration of the EU’s stance towards the Asian giant.

In the Q&A session, Dr. Berkofsky addressed various inquiries about the Chinese perception towards German reunification, the impact of sinology on German perceptions of China, and the strategic posturing of East Germany and DPRK in the context of their relationships with China and Taiwan.