Belt and Road Brings Numerous Opportunities to Europe – An interview with Dr. Thomas Wagner, President of Gesellschaft Schweiz-China


By staff reporter VERENA MENZEL


IN recent months, German media has been awash with skepticism and criticism concerning China’s Belt and Road Initiative. On May 15, the second day of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, Der Spiegel published a report titled “How Did China Conquer the World with US $900 Billion” on its website. Last August, the printed edition of the same magazine alluded to China’s quest for world domination via the Belt and Road. On May 14 this year, the German television broadcaster ZDF posted an article on its website titled “Query the Selfless China” in which it claimed that China wanted to “build an empire” and aimed at a “globalization of Chinese characteristics” to “bring power to itself.”


Zurich and Kunming have been twin towns for 35 years and mutual benefits of the partnership have transpired.


These sentiments are all too familiar to Dr. Thomas Wagner, president of Gesellschaft Schweiz-China, an NGO established in 1945 and dedicated to promoting economic and cultural exchanges between China and Switzerland. Now aged 73, the Swiss expert holds two PhDs, one in medicine, the other in law. He was mayor of Zurich from 1982 to 1990, following which he served as deputy mayor for another 12 straight years. It was during his time in office that he established relations with China.


Zurich and Kunming: Twin Cities


Back in 1982, China had just started to reform and open up to the outside world. Wagner proposed twinning Zurich with Southwest China’s Kunming City. Looking back, he remembers the worries and fears many Swiss people had about his decision, and the criticisms that poured in from the media.


“China was a strange country to the West, including Switzerland, back then,” he recalled. “People were very prejudiced and called into question the benefits of Zurich and Kunming being twin cities.”


But Wagner stood by his decision. He saw the potential of China and was fascinated by its culture and people. “I now know more than ever before that I was right. Those who criticized me in the past now ask me to help them find a ‘way in’ to China,” Wagner continued, “proof that public opinions don’t reflect the nature of things all the time.”


Zurich and Kunming have been twin towns for 35 years and mutual benefits of the partnership have transpired. Following Zurich as an example, Kunming has become a model city in China in areas relating to municipal water supply, sewage disposal, urban public transport network, and protection of ancient architectures. In turn, Zurich has benefited from orders from Kunming and also expanded its ventures in China.


Belt and Road: A Forward-Looking Initiative


So far, 2017 has witnessed efforts on China’s part to promote international cooperation. It is no longer a country that has just restored economic order, but one that plays an important role in world economy.


To facilitate the Belt and Road construction, the Chinese government invited foreign guests to participate in the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, held in Beijing from May 14 to 15. Delegations from more than 100 countries attended the forum. At the opening ceremony, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a keynote speech. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also spoke.


Prime Ministers of several European countries, such as Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Greece, attended the forum. Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni and Spain’s Mariano Rajoy also appeared in person, while Angela Merkel and Theresa May appointed ministers to represent Germany and the U.K. respectively in Beijing. Fresh from the presidential election, delegates from France were also present.


According to the framework of the Belt and Road, China plans to build a transport network including highways, railways, ports, and airports, that will link Europe and Asia, and also oil and gas pipelines and hydropower stations. Chinese president Xi Jinping hopes that in the upcoming years, the ancient route of trade and commerce – the Silk Road – will be rejuvenated. Xi announced a US $900 billion investment in this huge project, the country’s biggest such pledge in decades.


In the West, different opinions towards this initiative have been aired. Should Europe be wary of the widespread influence of the Belt and Road? “It needn’t be,” Wagner emphasized, “but critical inquiry should be allowed.”


“It would be wrong of us to listen only to positive feedback. Criticisms should be tolerated because they are necessary. We can’t say that everything is good. In my opinion, people need to inform themselves of the full ramifications of this initiative. It’s dangerous to see only one side of a coin.” He explained, “I think this initiative is highly intriguing and should be supported. But questions are allowed to help us weed out any underlying problems.”


Switzerland has participated in this project since the very beginning. “My country played an important role in the development of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Although we did not invest much, we participated in the preparation work for it. The good relations between China and Switzerland will lead us to participate in different programs in the future development of the Belt and Road,” Wagner said.


Switzerland broke new ground in dealing with China, according to Wagner. Chinese people also see it this way. In January 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a four-day visit to Switzerland during his participation in the Davos World Economic Forum. In Davos, Xi gave a passionate speech on free trade and common prosperity against a background of rising trade protectionism and populism.


Doris Leuthard, president of the Swiss Confederation, attended the Beijing forum in May, which in the eyes of Wagner sent an important signal. “Switzerland was the only major Western European country to send its highest level official to the Beijing forum. This move could help to strengthen mutual trust. The key to smooth cooperation between the two countries is an attitude of trust and openness towards each other.”


Wagner also pointed out that the general public of Switzerland knows little about the Belt and Road. “But if you ask anyone who maintains frequent contact with Asia, you’ll find that they are quite familiar with this initiative. I think our mission at the Gesellschaft Schweiz-China is to draw people’s attention to this huge, forward-looking project. Its impact will reach far into the future.”


“Geographically, there’s a great distance between China and Europe. But the Belt and Road Initiative provides numerous cooperative opportunities, most notably for the European market. We have a well-structured industry, and advantages in the fields of railways, construction machinery, engineering, and aerospace technology. Besides, we are experienced in environmental protection. Therefore, we can contribute to economic development and environmental protection with a win-win result. In my opinion, we in Europe could participate in the Belt and Road construction in cultural, scientific, and economic areas.


Celebrate Cultural Differences


Wagner sees an opportunity for cooperation between China and Switzerland in the cultural sector. Many countries in the world appreciate Switzerland’s efforts in successfully preserving its different cultural structures and traditions. “I think we are obliged to pass this sense of responsibility to other countries,” said Wagner.


He explained: “We need to consider the following questions to make sure development and interconnectivity do not have adverse effects on the cultures of the countries concerned. What results will the Belt and Road bring during its implementation? What does it mean to the different cultures along the routes? Will they lose their identities?”


According to Wagner, in the past several years, China has exerted a growing influence in Switzerland. This is inseparable from the maintenance of good bilateral relations. The Gesellschaft Schweiz-China has made its own contributions to the blossoming relationship. “Our organization works as a coordinator. We pool suitable people in a program at a suitable time, which might give us a chance to participate in the Belt and Road in the future.”


How can international cooperation succeed? What should the Europeans pay attention to when dealing with Chinese people? Wagner gave his tips as a China expert: “People who don’t know about China think it is easy to do business there, which is totally wrong. Foreigners need to gain the trust of their Chinese business partners with good projects first and convince them that their foreign products or experience can meet the demands of the Chinese. This requires patience.”


“Many Europeans have done the opposite. They want to realize their goal as soon as possible: to sign contracts with China and carry them out to make a quick profit. For the Chinese, it’s also important to find the way to success. It’s far more important to establish and develop connections in China than in Europe.”