German Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China: An Interview with FAU-Alumna Dr. Patricia Flor

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She has been the German ambassador to the People’s Republic of China since July 2022 and is in charge of the German embassy in Beijing: Dr. Patricia Flor. Originally from Nuremberg, she has made her career as a diplomat, representing German interests in her host country. She completed her doctoral degree in Eastern European history, economics and philosophy at FAU in 1995. In an interview with FAU Alumni Management, Patricia Flor shares what is special about her work, what motivates her and how her time at FAU has influenced her, among other things.

Dr. Flor, you graduated from FAU in 1995 with a doctoral degree in Eastern European history, philosophy and economics. Before that, you completed a Magister degree at FAU in the subjects history, philosophy, Slavonic studies, and Medieval and Eastern European history. Why did you decide to study at FAU?

I have always been attracted to foreign countries, cultures and languages, even when I was at school or working as a journalist, but one remained tantalizingly out of reach – the Soviet Union as the opponent to the USA in the Cold War, the power behind the splitting of the German nation. I wanted to find out more about this foreign state, about this different system. FAU with its Chair of Eastern European History, led at the time by Prof. Dr. Ruffmann, allowed me to focus on the development of the Soviet Union in the 20th century for my Magister degree.

What role has your time at FAU played in your career to date?

It has played a decisive role. It opened my eyes to how the current time has its roots in and is determined by history, as well as making me aware of the role people have to play in shaping international relations. As part of my doctoral degree under the supervision of Prof. Altrichter I received a DAAD grant to spend time in Moscow in 1991. It was a historical year: an attempted putsch, the appointment of Yeltsin as the new Russian leader, the resignation of Gorbatschev, the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was accredited with the Soviet Academy of Sciences, but suddenly it didn’t exist anymore. I experienced the historical turning point at first hand. The decision that I would like to move on from my knowledge of history and play an active role in current affairs led me to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the German diplomatic service.

You have been the German ambassador to China for nearly six months now. Events on the national and international stage shape your commitments. What exactly does your work involve?

As an ambassador I represent German interests and concerns vis-à-vis the Chinese. It is not always easy, for example in those areas where there is a discrepancy between our points of view, such as with human rights or the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. I am also responsible for looking for openings for potential partnerships and I remain in constant contact and dialog with China’s ministries and authorities, as well as representatives from industry, culture and civil society.

What exactly does that entail?

For example, I might meet representatives of German industry in the morning to discuss their aims and anxieties concerning China’s economic policy, followed by a presentation on 50 years of German-Chinese relations at one of the universities in Beijing, or a report to Berlin on State President Xi Jinping’s speech to the Communist Party’s National Congress, or one of many meetings concerning Minister Baerbock’s meeting, before in the afternoon attending the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on urgent diplomatic business to urge China to support the Ukraine resolution in the UNO, or recording a video for a post/tweet on German climate policy, followed in the evening by a reception in the residence for a vernissage for an art exhibition.  Not to forget checking e-mails, taking phone calls….

FAU with its Chair of Eastern European History, led at the time by Prof. Dr. Ruffmann, allowed me to focus on the development of the Soviet Union in the 20th century for my Magister degree.

Winston Churchill once said “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.” What is the secret of good diplomacy, especially when you are faced with skepticism or even distrust on the part of your counterpart?

In the very first instance, a capable diplomat should take time before the meeting, presentation or journey to consider what our objectives, interests and positions are: what do I want to achieve for Germany? I have to think about what possible plausible outcomes or acceptable compromises. Are there red lines that we must not cross?

Secondly, you have to have the ability and the patience to listen to your counterpart, even if the conversation is not pleasant or maybe even confrontational and even if your opinion differs entirely. This is the only way you can get a clear picture of opposing views and divergent interests and explore possible aspects you may have in common, the only way to open the door to negotiations and find a starting point for collaboration, compromises and conciliation – or at least to avoid open confrontation or escalation.

From 2006 to 2010 you were the German ambassador to Georgia and from 2018 to 2022 the EU ambassador to Japan. What impressed you most in these two countries?

I was very impressed in both countries by the lively ancient culture and history of the Georgian and Japanese people that is still revered today, with many visitors heading to monasteries high in the Caucasian mountain ranges, or the temples and shrines in Shikoku.  Georgian hospitality, Georgian cuisine and the excellent Georgian wines are unforgettable, and a Japanese meal is a delight for both the eye and the palate. Both peoples have been faced with catastrophes such as war, defeat, earthquakes, or tsunamis, but they have retained their resilience and their traditions.

How do you best like to relax after a hard day at work in Beijing?

Playing the piano and talking with my husband about peculiar aspects of the passage of time.

When you think of your Franconian home, what three things do you think of first?

Franconian Switzerland, gingerbread and Albrecht Dürer’s hare.

How important is networking in your job? Are you still in touch with former fellow students?

Networks are extremely important in the diplomatic service and although the emphasis is especially on the international community and diplomats from other countries, contacts from university can also still be valuable. I also met my husband at FAU.

Which aspects of German culture do people in China find especially interesting?

Our Oktoberfest in Beijing last autumn was very popular, as Chinese people like drinking beer and the world famous Tsingtao brewery was founded by Germans. There are also a lot of enthusiasts of German art and design in China. The exhibition “Crossing Parallels: German design 1945-1990” a joint project between the German Vitra Design museum and the Tsinghua University Art Museum in Beijing funded by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs was extremely well received. That apart, everyone here has of course heard of one of the great German philosophers – Karl Marx.

The decision that I would like to move on from my knowledge of history and play an active role in current affairs led me to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the German diplomatic service.

It is often said that it is hard to get into the diplomatic service. What are the prerequisites?

You should enjoy getting to know new people, cultures and languages, have the ability to cope with difficult situations and challenges in an unfamiliar setting and to manage crises, and you should be open to taking on a new job anywhere in the world every few years.

What advice would you give students at FAU who are considering a career in the diplomatic service?

If you would like to represent Germany and make a contribution towards improving international relations, if you can imagine spending the majority of your life abroad (also in less comfortable conditions than in Germany), if you have very wide-ranging interests in political issues and solving conflicts, economic relations as well as culture, knowledge transfer and international organizations such as UNO, and do not want a quiet office job, then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would suit you well.

Last, but not least, can you tell us your favorite place at FAU and or in Erlangen?

The lake Dechsendorfer Weiher

Thank you very much for the interview, Dr. Flor!

(Interview: Sebastian Schroth, Juni 2023)

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