Will the Chinese dragon swallow more Swiss firms?

Greater numbers of Chinese visitors and investments arrived in Switzerland last year and the trend looks set to continue. The hotel industry is rejoicing, but critics fear Switzerland is selling off the family silver. (SRF/swissinfo.ch) 

The Chinese multimillionaire, Yunfeng Gao, now owns four hotels in Switzerland, including the Hotel Palace in Lucerne and a four-star hotel in Melchsee-Frutt. The spa hotel Bad Serneus, the Hotel Schützen on Lauterbrunnen and Le Mirador above lake Geneva are also in Chinese hands. 

Conservative right People’s Party parliamentarian Hans-Ueli Vogt has warned, “We are selling our know-how to the Chinese.” He recently asked the government to clarify why Switzerland is aiding Chinese global power politics. The list of other Swiss companies now in Chinese hands is growing to include airport services, retailers, watchmakers, commodity traders, manufacturers and hotels.

Vogt is not the only Swiss politician to harbour reservations. Others want to re-negotiate the 2014 Swiss-Chinese free trade agreement to give Swiss firms equal rights to buy shares in Chinese firms. There are calls for Switzerland to follow the lead of the European Union in protecting strategically vital sectors, such as energy, from Chinese takeover.

Chinese companies increased global investments by 70% last year to $183 billion (CHF177 billion), according to the United Nations trade body UNCTAD. Some $43 billion alone was spent on the takeover of Swiss agrochemicals company Syngenta by ChemChina.

In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged China and Switzerland to step up trade further, including the promotion of tourism. Chinese guests clocked up 7.8% extra overnight stays in Switzerland last winter and a 12.3% year-on-year increase in the first three months of 2017.

The first direct flights from Beijing to Zurich in nearly 20 years by Air China are expected to further raise Chinese guests’ overnight hotel stays in Switzerland by between 20,000 and 30,000.

Selling out?

Swiss Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann takes the criticism in stride. He agrees with the principle of protecting vital state industries, he told the Blick newspaper. The government already holds controlling stakes in rail, telecommunications, energy, armament and postal companies.

But he will go no further with protectionism. “I can well understand why people raise these concerns,” he told Blick. “But I can live with [Chinese takeovers] if technology, innovation, and above all jobs, remain here – that’s what counts.”

“A loss of Swiss know-how cannot happen so easily because it exists inside Swiss heads. They cannot simply be sent to other countries in the thousands. We operate in open markets and that brings us prosperity and employment.”

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