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A friendship needs to be tested to grow stronger

We believe that Sweden and China have the capacity to overcome current differences.

6 NOVEMBER, 2019

Kristian Odebjer
Swedish Chamber of
Commerce in Hong Kong
Lars-Åke Severin
Swedish Chamber of
Commerce in China

Sweden and China are old friends, having established diplomatic relations as early as 1950. Like any friendship, this one needs to be tested in order to grow stronger. The Focus story in this issue paints the picture of an increasingly complex friendship: on the one hand, ties within both trade and tourism are becoming ever closer; on the other hand, Swedish public opinion has grown more suspicious about the aims of a nation that is on course to become the world’s largest economy. One reason for this mistrust might be that China to many Swedes is still a relatively unknown quantity; the less we know, the more we fear. That is however not the whole explanation: China also needs to grow into its emerging role – and the responsibilities of being a world power.

While bilateral economic trends continue to develop in an overall positive direction, it seems to us that a lack of clear communication has led to significant friction in the relationship. Close friends should be able to discuss any issue in a respectful manner, relying on reason to drive home their arguments. With this type of dialogue firmly established via both official and informal channels, it is possible that the incidents mentioned in our Focus story would never have occurred, or at least could have been resolved more swiftly.

Of course, it is not only about communication. China and Sweden are still in many ways very different countries. These differences in culture and traditions should be celebrated, and used as a source of inspiration as we look to develop the relationship to the next level. Notwithstanding the value of diversity however, we do depend on predictability and transparency for business (and society at large) to function. One of the issues that Sweden needs to be clearer about in its communication with our Chinese friends is that there is a real need to reduce the element of arbitrariness that sometimes still applies when doing business in China. As we have pointed out before, the greatest beneficiaries of a strengthening of the rule of law in China will be the people of China.

Despite various challenges, we need to remember that Sweden still has a strong “brand” in China. Countless features of our country – gender equality, our healthcare and education systems, sustainability in business and society, innovative technology, protected nature – are sources of inspiration to Chinese people who have come to know about Sweden via social media or, increasingly, from a personal visit. This means that Swedish companies have an opportunity to support China in managing its many challenges, be it the transition to a carbon neutral energy system, or meeting the demands of a rapidly aging society.

We believe that Sweden and China have the capacity to overcome current differences. The path ahead needs to be marked by deepening engagement, and we therefore welcome the recently announced China strategy of the Swedish government, and the soon-to-be established national “knowledge centre” for China studies. The centre of gravity in the world economy is shifting relentlessly in the direction of China and the rest of Asia. Believe it or not, according to the Swedish statistical agency SCB, China still only represents five per cent of Swedish foreign trade flows. We should invest further in the kind of knowledge that can help sustain and grow the Sino-Swedish relationship further. We should also maintain a sober and realistic view of our objectives.