Chinese dignitary pays discreet visit

Zeng Qinghong, a powerful man on the way up Keystone Archive

The right-hand man of the Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin, has signed an agreement renewing a programme to train officials as he visits Switzerland.

This content was published on July 2, 2002 - 22:41

Zeng Qinghong is the highest-ranking Chinese official to make the trip to Bern since Jiang's own appearance in the Swiss capital in 1999. The president's visit was a memorable one thanks to a minor diplomatic tiff.

When he arrived in the Swiss capital, pro-Tibet supporters booed him. Jiang then accused the Swiss government and its president, Ruth Dreifuss, of not organising his visit properly.

Chinese Machiavelli

Zeng holds a key position within the Chinese Communist Party. He is the head of the organisation department, giving him a big say in the choice of political appointees.

His backroom deals to further his career and guarantee Jiang's future have earned him the nickname of the "Chinese Machiavelli", as well as a few enemies along the way.

This is the powerful man met the Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, on Tuesday, to renew an agreement in which he has a particular interest.

Since 1994, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), has financed a programme to train Chinese public servants and Communist Party officials, who are taught Western management techniques.

A few hundred Chinese have already taken part in the programme, which costs the Swiss around SFr2 million per year. It is currently run by a foundation, "Europe-China Management Improvement", and headed by Professor Paolo Urio of Geneva University.

Discreet Swiss

The Chinese are said to be particularly satisfied with the results so far, according to diplomatic sources. "Beijing could choose Switzerland to train high-ranking officials," said one Swiss diplomat.

Unlike other countries such as France, Germany or other members of the European Union who have also shown an interest in training the Chinese, the Swiss have the advantage of being discreet.

This is one virtue both the Swiss and Chinese share. "You can well imagine that it is interesting for China to get proper training in a country where the political climate is stable," added the diplomat.

Zeng's visit to Switzerland - and Austria - is unusual as he rarely travels. He is also a prestigious visitor for the Swiss, since he is considered the brains behind the "democratisation" of the Chinese Communist Party, launched last year by Jiang Zemin.

Joseph Deiss is expected to talk to Zeng about political reform in China, as well as the future of the Chinese regime.

Mystery visit

Zeng may also be using the visit for different reasons, since it allows him to make an appearance on the international scene without taking any risks.

China is also one the few countries where Swiss neutrality still means something, according to observers.

The remainder of Zeng's four-day visit to Switzerland is something of a mystery. Apart from a short meeting with Swiss Economics Minister Pascal Couchepin on Monday, no other official duties have been announced.

The Chinese foreign ministry has described the visit as a routine part of its bilateral relationship with Switzerland. Chinese delegations often spend time in Switzerland at the tail end of trips to neighbouring countries to visit the mountains.

Bern is also remaining tight-lipped about Zeng's trip to avoid any security problems. Haunted by the small row during Jiang's visit, the foreign ministry is worried that pro-Tibetan supporters will reappear in front of parliament and disturb another important visitor.

swissinfo/Frédéric Koller, Beijing

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