Mountains, watches and chocolate are what many Chinese know and love about Switzerland, but the Swiss are working hard to take them beyond the stereotypes.
In the run-up to the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Bern in 2010, Switzerland is keen to build on its positive image in China, but wants to show the Chinese something they are less familiar with: its achievements in education and science.
Presence Switzerland is the part of the Swiss foreign ministry in charge of promoting Switzerland's image abroad. Manuel Salchli, head of major national events at the organisation, told swissinfo.ch in an email interview that it had drawn up a specific communications campaign for China for 2007-2011.
The campaign was designed around two major events taking place in China during that period: the Olympic Games in 2008, and Expo 2010 in Shanghai.
swissinfo.ch: What are the goals of this operation?
Manuel Salchli: China is a priority country for Switzerland. The key messages of the campaign are Swiss quality of life and Switzerland's international reputation. They were developed on the basis of a comprehensive image study carried out in 2006. The Swiss pavilion at Expo Shanghai features the sub-theme rural-urban interaction, which relates to these messages. The pavilion is thus an important part of Switzerland's communication campaign in China.
swissinfo.ch: What is the cost of the operation?
M.S.: While Presence Switzerland disposes of a yearly budget of nearly SFr10 million ($9.8 million), there is a separate budget for the Swiss pavilion in Shanghai. On March 29, 2006, the government confirmed Switzerland's participation in Expo 2010 Shanghai and approved a total budget of SFr20 million – SFr4 million of which is to be raised from the private sector.
swissinfo.ch: To what extent are such operations effective?
M.S.: World exhibitions have today become an international platform that address current issues and help solve economic, social and environmental problems. They are a great opportunity to share knowledge, set up and expand networks, and promote the image of a country abroad. With an expected 70 million visitors, Expo 2010 is set to be the biggest of its kind and is thus an opportunity to promote Switzerland's image abroad that cannot be missed.
The goal of the Swiss pavilion is to be among the top five European national pavilions that people intend to visit and to attract 2.5 million electronically registered visitors during the six months of the Expo.
swissinfo.ch: What concrete benefits do you expect?
M.S.: There is a very important long-term dimension to the project for the Swiss government, for Switzerland's economy and for Switzerland's scientific community. The Swiss pavilion provides an ideal platform for establishing contacts and nurturing relationships between Swiss and Chinese opinion leaders.
This month, for instance, [Justice Minister] Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf and a delegation of Swiss parliamentarians will meet high-level officials from the Chinese government in the context of the roofing ceremony of the Swiss pavilion. Our projects in China therefore facilitate the establishment of important relations.
swissinfo.ch: What image of Switzerland do you want to present?
M.S.: The work of Presence Switzerland is determined by the government's overall strategy for communication abroad. A comprehensive image study showed that Switzerland's achievements in the fields of education and innovation are not so widely known in China. As a consequence, it is our aim to increase Chinese interest in Swiss know-how and promote knowledge of Switzerland with regard to science and education. More generally, our country's high quality of life and good international reputation are to be communicated.
swissinfo.ch: Does the debate about banking secrecy affect Switzerland's image in China?
M.S.: Detailed analyses [of the debate about banking secrecy] have shown that the issue has not influenced Switzerland's image in China up to now.
swissinfo.ch: How would you assess the current image of Switzerland in China?
M.S.: Switzerland already has an excellent image in China. The 2006 image study showed that it ranks highest compared with benchmark countries and that both the general public and opinion-leaders rate Switzerland very positively.
This positive image is based on stereotypes. Associations such as beautiful scenery, chocolate and watches are widespread and while political stability, environmental protection and quality of life are rated positively, Switzerland's innovative potential and its international competitiveness are less known and evaluated more critically.
Such a positive ranking cannot be taken for granted and Switzerland needs to be continuously promoted in China in order to keep and further develop this positive image.
Presence Switzerland is part of the general secretariat of the Swiss foreign ministry. It is responsible for presenting and fostering a positive image of Switzerland in the world.
It carries out projects abroad, organises visits to Switzerland for foreign decision makers and opinion leaders and distributes information material.
In addition to its current campaign in China, it is organising a similar one in Canada around the Vancouver winter Olympics in 2010 and is planning one for the 2012 World Expo in Yeosu in South Korea.
Switzerland and China
There is currently a flurry of activity in Swiss-Sino diplomacy. Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf is to visit China this week, where she will be present at the roofing ceremony for the Swiss pavilion.
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited Bern in January.
Plans are also afoot for President Hu Jintao to come to Switzerland, the Chinese Ambassador to Bern Dong Jinyi recently confirmed. He said relations between the two countries were currently at their "best stage in their history".
Switzerland was the first western country to institutionalise a human rights dialogue with China. This dialogue, launched in 1991, has resulted in regular meetings between the two countries. The tenth round of talks was held in Beijing in July 2008.
China has been Switzerland's most important Asian trading partner since 2002, according to the economics ministry in 2008. In 2006, Swiss exports totalled SFr4.1 billion ($4 billion), while imports from China were worth SFr3.9 billion.
Switzerland and China are currently negotiating a free-trade agreement.