By Hui Min Neo
Chinese entrepreneur Zhang Jianxin’s first thought was that he had fallen victim to a fraud scheme when he arrived at the location of his investment in a small German village.
For just over a million yuan each (125,000 euros, US$143,000), he and 11 other Chinese businessmen were promised apartments in the village and help with navigating Germany’s bureaucracy, including obtaining residency permits and registering a business.
“But when I first got here, the grass was taller than people… I told the ICCN CEO I have the impression that it’s all a scam,” Zhang told AFP, referring to the company in charge.
As it turned out, it was all above board.
Six years on, Zhang is one of 1,000 Chinese who have moved to Hoppstaedten-Weiersbach, total population 3,500, where they have also set up shop.
All of them had been won over by Chinese businesswoman Jane Hou and her German partner Andreas Scholz, who conceived the idea of building the biggest Chinese trading centre in Europe.
Three hundred small and medium-sized Chinese firms now have registered German businesses in the village, tucked within a ring of forests in western Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate state.
Another 12 buildings are being built over the next five to seven years to accommodate another 500 investors.
VIDEO: A former US army base in a small German village has become the unlikely home of hundreds of Chinese families, drawn to its reputation as a hub for Chinese entrepreneurs. The project is the brainchild of German businessman Andreas Scholz and his Chinese wife pic.twitter.com/hUDYLO4qFR
— AFP news agency (@AFP) October 10, 2018
Hard to imagine that it all started with a conversation between Hou and Scholz at Frankfurt airport.
Scholz, who was then managing a shop in the airport, said they “chatted and exchanged business cards.”
Two weeks later, Hou told him she was looking to hire a German sales representative who also handles contact with the embassy.
Hou “is a very persuasive person,” said Scholz.
“Three weeks later, I packed two bags, gave notice on my job, my apartment, gave away my stuff or sold it and went to China.”
‘No legal norms’
From a little office in Shenzhen, the two embarked on their bid to convince Chinese businessmen to move to Germany.
Their pitch was that a registered German company would be viewed as more trustworthy to do business in the country.
“It is always a bit risky for German companies to do business with a Chinese limited company somewhere in Shenzhen or in Shanghai as there are simply no legal norms,” Scholz said.
“There are unfortunately enough examples where money had gone missing or didn’t arrive and the Chinese partner has disappeared, no one is there to answer the phone.”
Hou, through a German contact, learnt of housing blocks left empty in Hoppstaedten-Weiersbach after the US military moved out.
Located around 90 minutes by road from Frankfurt airport, the village had been losing its younger population to big cities.
It was therefore to local politicians’ joy when ICCN approached them with a plan to spruce up the blocks and sell them to the Chinese.
Although the tranquil setting feels a world away from China’s booming cities, it turned out to be another selling point.
‘Clean air, clean water’
“Here, there’s much fewer people. My heart is calm,” said Zhang.
A potential investor, Yang Hai, was impressed by the “clean air and water” that’s drinkable from the tap.
Yang was in town for a German-China economic forum organised by ICCN, an opportunity to check out the site.
If it works out, the pharmaceutical investment would be the first time the centre moves from trading to manufacturing. Already, some of the companies based there are involved in exporting German goods to China, not just bringing in Chinese products.
“Forty-two per cent of the place is covered with greenery and the air is very clean. Such a place for a pharmaceutical company… is particularly suitable. Our requirements are that air and water quality must be good,” said Yang.
“We also looked at Canada and America but Germany may be better because it’s cold in Canada and there are too many unpredictable developments in the US,” he said.
While Chemnitz, an eastern city on the other side of Germany, has been rocked by anti-foreigner protests, newcomers to Hoppstaedten-Weiersbach said they have encountered only friendliness from locals.
“Before coming here, there were some concerns that the locals may not be accepting. But in fact, they are very friendly,” said Cui Jin, who runs a medical device trading business.
Retiree Becker Ottmar said the newcomers “are very nice and forthcoming… we live well together.”
“Today, when a house is empty, it would likely be sold to the Chinese,” said Ottmar, who lives across the street from a restaurant now run by a Chinese family.
Scholz admitted that “such a project would not work everywhere in Germany”, but added that villagers had been long used to having foreigners living among them given the US army bases dotted across the region.
They had also felt the impact on jobs and economic opportunities when the US base in Hoppstaedten-Weiersbach closed in the mid-1990s.
When the Chinese moved in, “they bought cars, furniture, daily necessities. That’s quite a bit of opportunity for a small locality,” said Scholz.
The German businessman said the company has made an effort to create opportunities for the locals and newcomers to meet, including organising Chinese-German festivals and football tournaments.
Stressing the importance to bridge the cultural divide, Scholz said: “We are this bridge.”
He and Hou have since married and have a daughter. They live next to the Zhang family.