New Swiss Ambassador to China eyes promising areas for cooperation
Published: Jan 20, 2023 12:49 AM
Swiss Ambassador to China Jürg Burri Photo: Courtesy of the Swiss Embassy in Beijing

Swiss Ambassador to China Jürg Burri Photo: Courtesy of the Swiss Embassy in Beijing

As the new Swiss Ambassador to China who assumed office four months ago, Jürg Burri has had a busy schedule and a long list of things to do.

In 10 days, he has visited Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, Beijing and Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, to meet officials, business representatives and ordinary citizens. He posted his experiences on China's social media platform Sina Weibo, where he has more than 100,000 followers.

"As new Swiss Ambassador to China, my priority is to defend Switzerland's interests in China in several fields including politics, economics and people-to-people relations," he told the Global Times in an exclusive interview.

"Normally it should be political relations first, but in my case the order will be reversed because in 2025, we will celebrate 75 years of diplomatic relations between Switzerland and China, and that comes under political relations. In 2024, we will welcome the 10th anniversary of the free trade agreement (FTA) between Switzerland and China, which is economic relations. Therefore, I hope this year will be the year of people-to-people relations," he said.

He noted that the job as Switzerland's Ambassador to China is both rewarding and challenging. "China is always challenging and China is always rewarding for a country like Switzerland, which has a population almost 175 times smaller than the Chinese population."

Burri is now eyeing the development of bilateral relations, an area where there is lots of potential, he said. China has recently made its COVID-19 adjustment and released a series of measures that further facilitate the movement of people and goods as well as international travel. "The fact that people can travel again and the tourism sector is opening up will surely boost the Chinese economy," Burri said.

He said that this year could be the year of rediscovering each other.

"We can also benefit again from the direct contact experience. We have around 1,000 Swiss companies here in China. This year will be the year of rediscovery and of re-knowing each other in a direct and personal way," he said, noting that the economic cooperation between the two countries will be more intense.

At the invitation of Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, and the government of the Swiss Confederation, Chinese Vice Premier Liu He attended the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023 and visited Switzerland from January 15 to 19.

"Also, for other conferences, we are informed that Chinese delegations are going to Switzerland again," the ambassador said.

The Swiss government said last week that travelers from China entering Switzerland will not be required to undergo compulsory testing for COVID-19, Reuters reported.

The Omicron variants circulating in China posed "only a small risk to the Swiss population and the Swiss health system," it said in a statement, read the report.

Talking about how Switzerland views its relations with China at a time when the world is facing more uncertainties, the diplomat told the Global Times that China and the world "are very closely interconnected through many types of relations, especially economic relations."

"China has trade partners in Europe, in ASEAN and in the US, which is more or less like three packages. When I look at Switzerland, China is also our third trade partner. So I think the relationship is so important that we should listen to each other very carefully and that we should try to find out how we can make the most out of this relationship. We should evaluate all the possibilities that we have for good cooperation," he said.

Burri said that Switzerland and China now have "very intense" economic cooperation.

"On the one side, there is trade. China is Switzerland's No.3 trade partner. The trade has been mutually growing over the past years. So when I look back to 2014, when the free trade agreement entered into force, the trade volume has increased by 90 percent since then. What's interesting about this trade relationship is that it's more or less balanced. So we can say each gives as much as it takes and each takes as much as it gives."

Asked about whether it is hard to maintain close economic ties with China amid the current global political environment, the ambassador said that for many countries and especially for Switzerland, trade also has its own drive.

"We are oriented towards opportunities that are fruitful for both sides. I think these opportunities are here and I think that business people in both countries are still looking for these opportunities and are trying to explore them," he said.

He noted that an important field of cooperation between the two countries is in finance.

"We have the rather new instrument of the global stock connect between China and Switzerland and a very new phenomenon is that Chinese companies are putting their stocks through Global Exchange Depositary Receipts into the Swiss market in order to get investment from Switzerland into China. This is a new way of doing business. It opens many possibilities for both sides," he said.

Fostering people-to-people ties

From 2006 to 2009, Burri served as the Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Switzerland in Beijing. Talking about the changes that impressed him most from a decade ago, he named the "incredible new infrastructure," including the bullet train network.

"I think the high-speed train network is something which is really big for China because it's more environmentally friendly than traveling by airplane. In general, I find that the air quality in Beijing is better and the water quality is better."

In addition to economic cooperation, the two countries are also seeing cooperation in other fields, including sports. Chinese striker Zhang Linyan now plays for the Grasshopper Club Zurich women's team in the Swiss Women's Super League.

Burri told the Global Times that he knows some Chinese investors are now involved in the Swiss football league.

"Sports serve as a very good field for a partnership between countries. I think the other example is Swiss ski resorts, which are involved or in partnership with Chinese ski resorts," he said.

"If sports people want to cooperate between countries, I'm very much in favor and I'm willing to support it," he said.