Delegation from Wuhan visited Duisburg in 1983

40 Years Sino-German Mayors’ Program - An interview with Dr. Jürgen Steiger

Platforms for exchange and close cooperation are key tools on the cities’ path towards sustainable urban development. The annual two-week long Mayors’ Study-Tour Program facilitates such a knowledge exchange on sustainable city making between China and Germany. The program, initiated in 1981/82 mainly by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations and the Ministry of Construction, was transferred to GIZ in 2011/12 and taken over by the SGUP project in 2016/17. In cooperation with the China Association of Mayors (CAM) and the Association of German Cities (DST), SGUP opens a platform for German and Chinese local officials to discuss diverse approaches to sustainable urban development and learn from each other’s experiences.

In 2022, the Mayors’ Programme celebrates its 40th anniversary. With Dr. Jürgen Steiger, who managed the program between 2011/12 and 2016, we look back on the programme’s development and its lasting impact on Sino-German cooperations in sustainable urban planning.

Chinese mayors in Magdeburg 2017
Chinese mayors in Magdeburg 2017 © SGUP
Jürgen Steiger and the Party Secretary and Mayor of Pingdingshan City in 2012
Jürgen Steiger and the Party Secretary and Mayor of Pingdingshan City in 2012 © J. Steiger

SGUP: With what aim was the mayors’ program initiated in 1981 and who was the driving force?

JS: The talks were initiated by the Chinese side in 1981, mainly by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations and the Ministry of Construction. They approached the German Embassy in Beijing with the request to learn about urban development, administration and planning in Germany. During the Cultural Revolution, China’s urban development had been neglected and cities already had to deal with significant environmental pollution issues. Chinese cities also lacked experienced mayors or urban planners. In this respect, China’s main goal was to increase the country’s low urbanization rate. They saw a potential in learning from Germany’s experiences in rebuilding cities after World War II. 

In cooperation with the Chinese Ministry of Construction, the German side then invited a delegation of Chinese mayors to Germany in 1982, at first on a trial basis. At that time, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) commissioned the German Foundation for International Development (DSE) to carry out the program.

Over the years, the program proved to be very successful and was politically supported by both Germany and China. China recognized that it was necessary to gather experience on urban planning and urban management from other countries, especially from Germany. Also, the German side showed interest in China’s cities, an absolutely new territory back in 1982. 

SGUP: How has the key focus on climate-friendly urban planning developed over the years?

JS: The program’s thematic corridor was always set by the Chinese side, in accordance with the Five-Year Plans as political guideline. In the beginning, the programme’s topics were mostly related to city administration and urban planning, but over time, the focus shifted to climate-friendly urban development.

Very early in the 1990s, Chinese cities had serious environmental problems. Therefore, China already focused on climate issues like environmental resources, air quality and pollutant emissions. They started to set up national climate change programs, the first one in 2007, but also pilot projects, for instance the so-called “low-carbon cities” with concrete projects for climate mitigation and adaption at the local level. Concrete projects have been developed within the framework of the Mayors’ Program.

As China started early in its development to take the climate change seriously, it is not surprising that sustainable urban development has become a central theme in the mayors’ program. 

SGUP: The Sino-German Mayor’s Program offers a platform for exchange between German and Chinese cities. To what extent do German cities benefit?

JS: In 1982 and in the following years, direct contact with officials from Chinese municipalities was very important for the German cities. At that time, there were hardly any international contacts due to travel restrictions, and the mayors’ program was an opportunity for German cities to get a sense for the challenges Chinese city officials face. It also provided a chance to go beyond common clichés about China or the outcomes of the country’s reform and opening up. Not only partnerships, but also lasting contacts developed. That was the initial impulse for a new China image in Germany at that time. 

Since 2002, the program initiated and supported city partnerships. The German cities have been highly benefitting from that. There was and still is a regular exchange of experts between executives in the cities, for instance between Leipzig and Nanjing, Frankfurt am Main and Guangzhou, or Bonn and Chengdu. It seems to me that the most important interest of German cities is to exchange ideas on current topics such as energy, climate, e-mobility, or artificial intelligence nowadays. The exchange works especially well when there is a thematic partnership, such as the climate partnership between Bonn and Chengdu.

SGUP: Which city partnership, that has developed as part of the Mayors’ Program, has particularly stuck in your mind?

JS: Very important to me is the temporary project partnership between the city of Pingdingshan in Henan province and the German cities Bottrop, Herten and Gelsenkirchen. This partnership originated from the mayor’s program, with very concrete measures, many site visits, and intense mutual exchange. For me, Pingdingshan is such a special example, because it has become a model in China for a large number of cities in structural change, places that have an immense problem regarding climate mitigation and coal exit.

SGUP: You are still following the developments and dynamics of the exchange of Chinese and German mayors. Currently, facing the global spread of COVID-19, we have to find new exchange formats. What are your observations and suggestions?

JS: The city-to-city exchanges through Liaison Offices in Germany and China continued during the pandemic. However, I observed that it has become much more difficult for cities to stay in touch only with virtual meetings. The mayors’ program benefits greatly from the opportunity to experience cities and have personal exchanges. I have great doubts that such an exchange can be completely replaced by virtual formats.

Right now, city partnerships are highly relevant, for example through mutual support in coping with the spread of COVID-19. This is a topic where we should further facilitate and deepen exchanges on local level. We also learned that there should be more exchange on the topic of the “healthy city”, not only regarding the spread of diseases but also elderly care. There is still a lot to be done in this field and now is a good time to promote this topic.

About Dr. Jürgen Steiger:

Jürgen Steiger has worked as an assistant professor in international economics and researcher at the South Asia Institute and Alfred Weber Institute of Heidelberg University from 1975-1983. Since the late seventies, he has worked for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) at first as a freelance Consultant and from 1998 to 2016 in China as Deputy Country Director and Senior Economist and Advisor.

Sino-German Urbanisation Partnership

The partnership is working to influence political dialogue to address the challenges created by a fast-paced urbanization process and climate change in both China and Germany. It aims to create platforms for cross-city institutional exchange of experiences, facilitate knowledge exchange and promote capacity building that can drive the development of joint solutions to these challenges. Key targets of the exchange are to reduce CO2 emissions, promote a more balanced urbanization development and improve quality of life in cities in both China and Germany.