Business plans

Getting ahead in a country that’s catching up

The “golden cage” is actually a luxury – its “bars” both a springboard and a safety net helping the ambitious to stretch their wings – says a young Swiss man studying in Shanghai, China. 

For Niklaus Mueller, China is the place to be; he’s living there for the third time in five years. Like many Swiss of his generation, the 32-year-old is eager to explore the world and use that experience to his advantage. 

What’s less typical is the fact that he’s swimming against the current. 

“A lot of my friends wanted to go West, but I wanted to go back East. I'm fascinated by China, and even though I had already spent more than two years there, I felt like I could deepen my understanding of it and its place in the global economy,” Mueller tells 

Very neatly dressed and equipped with his own notes for the interview, Mueller seems like a man who considers things carefully and prepares accordingly. His first taste of China came in the form of an internship at an international law firm, CMS, in 2011. He needed to return to Zurich for the bar exam in 2012, but China stayed on his mind. 

“I was already convinced that I had to find a way to come back to China,” Mueller remembers. Back in Shanghai, CMS offered him the chance to kick off his career as a full-time associate – which he did for two years. 

However, you can’t stay forever at the place where they knew you as an intern, and Mueller swapped that job for one at Credit Suisse in Zurich. But after a year there, China was still calling him – and he enrolled in the MBA programme at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in 2015. 

“I’m very interested in entrepreneurship and innovation, and given the current developments in China, I think it’s one of the most exciting places to be,” explains Mueller, who is originally from Bern. 

That excitement extends to Chinese culture, history, and also the language, specifically, Mandarin. 

“It seems every character has a story behind it, and that helps you to remember all the characters by trying to understand the story behind them,” Mueller explains. He’s passed four out of six test levels so far, and is preparing for the fifth – which will require him to know 2,500 characters.

MBA student in Shanghai

For Niklaus Mueller, China is the place to be; he’s living there for the third time in five years – this time for the MBA programme at the China Europe International Business School. (Images: Daniele Mattioli)

The Chinese are very comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, whereas we Swiss would like to have all the details. We don’t like it much if there are too many open questions.” 

Golden safety net

Speaking of character: Mueller clearly has an ambitious one – one that has helped him to override any real or perceived notion of Switzerland’s “golden cage”.

“I can understand that people somehow feel a bit restricted. They say it’s hard to make a change, as the norms for expected behaviour are clear. It might be difficult to break out,” Mueller says.

At the same time, he believes Swiss people should be grateful for the political and economic stability at home. 

“This helps us. We have the luxury to venture abroad and if it doesn’t work out, we have the comfortable situation that you can always come back to Switzerland. I’m pretty sure I’d find a job within a couple of months if I went back home,” says Mueller, adding, “This takes away a lot of the pressure if you go to another country.” 

Indeed, maybe the better term would be “golden safety net” – something not everyone can enjoy. Mueller cites the example of a Spanish colleague who had to stay in China because she was struggling to find work in Spain. 

Sino-Swiss comparison 

China itself is enjoying a period of increasing prosperity and better links with other nations. 

“Chinese companies are all over Europe and the rest of the world, and with the free trade deal signed between Switzerland and China in 2014, I think there could be some interesting opportunities,” notes Mueller. 

And while Switzerland often ranks high in innovation, Mueller praises the entrepreneurial spirit of China as well.

“Innovation is a tricky thing. In the news you read that China is a copycat, but if you see what's going on, China has taken a leading position in certain industries such as e-commerce and fintech. Besides, if you look at technology firms in the US, you have often the equivalent in China,” Mueller is convinced, giving examples of how Alibaba’s Taobao, Tencent’s WeChat and Didi Kuaidi are China’s answers to eBay, WhatsApp and Uber.

He’s also impressed with the tech solutions available for small businesses, like the phone payment apps that everybody uses – pointing out that these have been available in China for years, but are fairly new in Switzerland. This probably has a lot to do with the optimism and open-mindedness that characterise the China that Mueller is experiencing.

“The Chinese are very comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, whereas we Swiss would like to have all the details. We don’t like it much if there are too many open questions,” says Mueller, who remembers observing that during contract negotiations at the law firm where he worked. “You could see quite some clashes of culture. To me it helps if you loosen up a bit.” 


Asked what he doesn’t like about China, Mueller is careful with his answer. Living in a land where news gets censored, it’s as if he doesn’t want to risk offending his hosts. 

“There are masses of people – crowded streets and a packed metro system – but I’m fine with this because you can’t change it,” he says, displaying the kind of self-censorship and diplomacy that will surely help him get ahead in business. 

But where he sees room for improvement is environmental policy. Every morning, he consults a pollution app.

“Way too often, the air quality is bad. Sometimes you can barely see more than 100 metres ahead of you. It’s worse in winter than in summer. There are days when you can’t pursue any outdoor activities because of the terrible air quality – and some more days where you decide to restrict yourself and you just want to stay inside,” laments Mueller – who misses enjoying Swiss nature. 

It’s somewhat of a paradox, finds Mueller. 

“You see the degradation of nature; this huge economic growth clearly comes at a high price,” Mueller says, “but there are also positive signals, like seeing China’s major investments in renewable energy and its recent commitment to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.” 

Animal welfare is another issue that troubles Mueller. While he applauds the use of every edible part – think pig-ear salad and fried chicken feet – he’s uneasy about how animals are treated in China. 

“Especially the way they prepare them, and the way they keep them – there are definitely some no-gos,” says Mueller, citing animals stuffed into cramped cages as an example. 

But what he loves to eat are dumplings, boasting, “Now I make some decent ones myself, actually!” 

Future is … bright white? 

As Shanghai is so cosmopolitan, Mueller hasn’t experienced extreme culture shock – though it’s difficult for him to find size 45 shoes there. But he recalls a time when he found something unexpected while shopping for moisturiser. 

“I knew that for Chinese women, it’s very important to have very white skin, so they have a lot of whitening creams. But there’s an incredible variety of lightening products for men as well. No one told me this, but apparently, it’s also a big thing for them,” laughs Mueller, who’s blue-eyed and naturally fair. 

Special creams or not, the future is looking bright both for Mueller and the people of China. 

“They‘re optimistic. They know that this is their time – that they have a bright future economically,” says an enthusiastic Mueller, who draws energy from the fast growth and pace – especially in Shanghai. “It’s incredible to be here and experience this first-hand.” 

And as a Swiss person trying to fit in? 

“If you want to live in China you really have to be willing to dive into the culture. This is why it’s important to try to understand Chinese civilisation and history, and to try to learn the language.” 

But he concedes that Shanghai is a very international city – and quite a contrast to some of the places he’s visited in the Chinese countryside. 

“Shanghai is somewhat of a bubble; it’s not typical China to me anymore. It’s rather cosmopolitan and a cultural melting pot.” 

Mueller will graduate from his MBA programme in 2017. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. He’s curious, mobile, and has a skill set that could take him just about anywhere.