Merkel to open IT fair with China showcasing tech's shift east
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday opens a major IT business fair where official partner China will showcase its rise as a high-tech power.
Merkel -- who has visited China seven times in a decade -- will meet Vice Premier Ma Kai as more than 600 Chinese companies exhibit their tech marvels at the CeBIT fair in the western city of Hanover.
Jack Ma, head of Alibaba -- China's answer to eBay and Amazon -- will give the keynote address, and companies including Huawei, Xiaomi and Lenovo will fill more than 3,000 square metres (30,000 square feet) of exhibition space.
For Germany, Europe's biggest economy, the event aims to further cement economic ties with fellow export power China as both seek to adapt to the sweeping digitisation of the world economy.
China's huge showing "makes it the biggest and strongest partner country presentation we've ever seen at CeBIT," said top exhibition executive Oliver Frese.
Bucking China's wider economic slowdown, information and communication technology is booming in the world's biggest smartphone market with the highest number of Internet users.
"China was known as a supplier of components and later as a supplier of hardware, smartphones, tablets and also PCs," said CeBIT spokesman Hartwig von Sass.
"Now China has numerous companies that have become world leaders ... for example Huawei, ZTE, Neusoft or Alibaba, some of which are far bigger than western IT companies.
"We see this as a shift on the world map: digitisation is going east."
- 'Pent-up demand' -
The head of German IT industry group BITKOM, Dieter Kempf, expressed awe at the scale of the Chinese market.
"This consumer market in China is something we can barely comprehend, more than 1.2 billion people with significant pent-up demand for IT solutions, which is far beyond European dimensions," he told AFP.
At a news conference, von Sass said the German market for IT, telecommunications and consumer electronics is set to grow 1.5 percent this year to 155.5 billion euros ($163 billion), despite falling sales of consumer electronics, with growth driven by gains in software and IT services.
Merkel, in her weekend video address, urged German companies, from corporate titans to family businesses, to get on board with the digital revolution because "the change will come much faster than we thought".
In the area of start-up funding, she said "Germany is not yet where we want to be".
Besides access to finance, she said "it is also a question of culture" and of "being able to live with the idea that out of 10 projects, only one will make it in the end".
She said Germany lagged behind the United States, and perhaps South Korea and China, in this respect although "we have already come a fair way".
The almost three-decade old CeBIT once dazzled consumers with gadgets but has been overshadowed by big tech events in Las Vegas and Barcelona, leading it to focus on business users.
Last year IT professionals made up more than 90 percent of the more than 200,000 visitors.
A major theme at the fair is what Germany calls "Industry 4.0" -- the fourth industrial revolution after steam power, factory mass production and the dawn of electronics and IT.
It refers to connecting automated manufacturing with the online world and the "Internet of Things", where everything from factories, homes and cars to household appliances will be online.
In October China's Premier Li Keqiang praised the "innovation partnership" with Germany and said his country must better harness the creative talents of its 1.3 billion people.
Germany is already by far the biggest European economic player in China. Two-way trade last year topped 140 billion euros ($177 billion).
Jost Wuebbeke of the Mercator Institute for China Studies said that in China-Germany trade, IT still plays a minor role, predicting however that it "could become far more important through German-Chinese cooperation in the field of Industry 4.0".
The choice of the Asian giant as partner country however throws a spotlight on its huge Internet surveillance system dubbed the "Great Firewall of China".
Human rights group Amnesty International plans to protest during CeBIT against China's treatment of critics, including jailed Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
"The German government must ask itself how it will contribute to improving the human rights situation in China," said Amnesty's Verena Harpe.
© 2015 AFP