China is going through a phase of rapid transformation. Economic development could lead to political reform and even, some hope, the introduction of direct democracy.
Ahead of Swiss parliamentary elections on October 23, swissinfo.ch sounded out opinions in Beijing.
“I really hope that Swiss democracy could serve as a model to China,” says a young Beijing artist who is getting ready to leave for Zurich where he will exhibit his work.
Most of the travellers queuing for a visa at the Swiss embassy are of the same mind.
A businessman, who knows Switzerland well, is even more emphatic. “All Chinese dream of a more open democracy, a more transparent government, along the lines of the Swiss model.”
Another visa applicant, who is planning on cycling from Beijing to Europe, adds a note of caution. “With its thousands of years of history, China will not allow itself to be influenced by foreign models.”
Almost all of those questioned have heard of the beauty of the Swiss countryside, the purity of the air, the quality of the knives and the watches. Many people mention Swiss neutrality, stability, harmony and, just a few, popular rights.
“I’m not sure they have a very clear idea of what I would call the Swiss political trademark – direct democracy,” cautioned Swiss ambassador Blaise Godet.
With fewer than eight million inhabitants, Switzerland would fit into a district of Beijing.
“In China, even the greatest advocates of democracy do not necessarily consider that a model that works in Switzerland – a recipe that until now has united us and made us prosperous – can be applied in a country as big and populous as China,” Godet said.
His opinion is shared by the professors Wang Kun and Xu Tiebing, both very knowledgeable about Switzerland and its political institutions. The Swiss formula could not apply to the country as a whole, they believe, but it could make sense for the regions.
Wang Kun, director of the Swiss Study Centre of the Beijing Foreign Studies University, says China could draw on the Swiss system as a model for the political reforms taking place in the countryside, at the village and district level.
“The country areas want to promote direct democracy. It is quite feasible that regions of the same size as some Swiss cantons will adopt this political system,” Wang said. “The Swiss example could teach us to exercise democracy and participate more in political life.”
“Democracy is a dream of mankind, it is universal,” said Xu, who teaches international relations at the Communication University of China in Beijing and who studied at the Graduate Institute, Geneva.
He too thinks there are some areas where the Swiss experience could be applied at local level, especially the people’s initiative “as an experiment”.
“Civil society is starting to wake up, and China has entered a period of transition. The [Communist] party is not as autonomous as it used to be,” he said.
Popular elections in the countryside and the right of any Chinese citizen to stand for election in local elections soon run into barriers.
In the past few months the media – foreign ones in particular – and the blogosphere have been full of stories about the arduous process facing independent candidates, the vast majority of whom are eventually ruled ineligible, despite their candidacy being perfectly legal.
The laws exist, but they are not always applied.
That said, if Chinese “democracy” is having a difficult beginning, the Swiss model also has some problems: it can be slow, cumbersome and inefficient.
“In Switzerland, citizens are more concerned with justice than with effectiveness. With us it’s just the opposite,” said Wang.
But he pointed out that the Chinese media show very little interest in Swiss politics.
“These past two or three years, if they have spoken about it, it’s mainly been to talk about the upsurge of parties on the extreme right. The banning of minarets, rejection of immigrants and the pull of populism have also occasionally found a mention.”
Switzerland isn’t trying to push its political system on the Chinese. Swiss diplomats “stick to the tradition of neutrality in the strictest sense of the word,” says Xu.
For his part, Godet believes the efforts currently underway to bring the two sides together are the right tactic, although he does not rule out perhaps one day launching “exchanges of opinion, and going on to conduct comparative studies of different political systems”.
But that would be at a “second stage”, the ambassador said.
The Beijing Foreign Studies University and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia set up the Swiss Study Centre in 1987.
It provides information of all kinds about Switzerland to the Chinese public.
It is also a platform for academic and cultural exchange between the two countries.
With its thousands of books and magazines, it is certainly the largest source of documentation about Switzerland in China.
However, although books are still arriving regularly, it is possible that Switzerland will decide to cut its funding.end of infobox
The first Confucius Institute in Switzerland opened in Geneva in 2011. It is run jointly by Geneva University and Chinese institutions.
For the moment it offers a very limited range of services, targeting only Masters students from the university, because it is still being set up.
It has come under fire from some quarters as a propaganda arm of the Chinese government.
They have asked about the legal status of an institute on Swiss soil that is partly subject to Chinese law.end of infobox
(Translated from French by Morven McLean and Julia Slater), swissinfo.ch