On March 28th, The Belt and Road Initiative Executive Group for Sweden (BRIX) co-organized a highly successful full-day seminar on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) together with the Halmstad University in southwest Sweden and Connect Sverige, a non-profit association that assists small and medium size companies to reach out and grow, the Lingang Group in Shanghai and Shanghai Dianji University.
This event was unique and almost unprecedented in Sweden, because it brought together a very wide-range of expertise on the BRI, the global economy past and present, China’s economic and industrial transformation, and the philosophical and scientific basis for dealing with the BRI and China from a Swedish and Western standpoint. The more than 60 attendees came from many different parts of Sweden, and from as far as Norway (former member of the Norwegian Parliament Thore Vestby).
One very important recurring theme in the whole seminar is the acknowledgement of the fact that, first, there is a need to seek objective and prejudice-free knowledge of the BRI and China itself; second, the acknowledgement that in dealing with China there is a need to recognize that it has a different history, culture, and political and social system that is unique to China, as our Swedish / Western history, culture and political and social systems are unique to ourselves. Mutual respect and thorough understanding of these differences is the key to a successful cooperation and interaction with both China and around the BRI. This is essential to thwarting misunderstandings, conflicts and the creation of barriers among nations.
There was a unanimous, implicit agreement among all speakers and many of the guests who posed questions and made comments that the BRI is a unique and unprecedented opportunity to create a world community that can co-exist in harmony and mutual benefits, i.e. a win-win system. Another point of agreement among the participants was that Sweden should join the BRI and contribute to it as well as benefit from the opportunities it provides for both Sweden’s own development plans and its efforts to cooperate in development plans together with China and other BRI members in other countries and continents such as Africa.
Professor Mike Danilovic, an expert in industrial management at Halmstad University and Shanghai Dianji University, who also moderated the event, welcomed the guests and speakers of the seminar which started at 10 am and ended at 5 pm. He presented the special guest Mr. Gu Hui, Consul-General of the Chinese Consulate in Gothenburg. Mr. Gu thanked the organizers of the seminar for the invitation and made opening remarks on the importance of the BRI for all countries and for the mutual cooperation between Sweden and China. Mr. Gu gave a report about the efforts made by the Consulates in Gothenburg and the Chinese Embassy in Stockholm to facilitate the work of Swedish companies willing to do business with China.
The first presentation under the title “What is the BRI and How it Can Support Economic Growth in Sweden and Swedish Enterprises, made by two members of BRIX, Lars Aspling (founder of CMC Aspling Konsult) and Hussein Askary (member of the board of BRIX) who took turns to offer a 4-part presentation on the BRIX, a “guided tour” of the BRI, China’s amazing industrial development in the past 30 years, and the benefits the BRI represent for Sweden, Europe, and Africa. Aspling and Askary emphasized the importance of researching and presenting objective and scientifically verifiable information about the BRI and China, rather than the usual propaganda-like reporting that is thrust upon the Swedish people in the mainstream media.
With the title of his presentation “BRI as Business Opportunity for Swedish Small and Medium Size Companies”, Professor, Danilovic, shared with the audience his knowledge of China based on his 7 years of work in China with Chinese universities and businesses, comparing the industrial development culture and philosophy in China and the West in the past few decades. In a poetic and humorous manner, Prof. Danilovic showed the types of misunderstandings that emerge when Swedish businesses deal with and market their technologies and products in China. He argued that it is absolutely necessary to approach China and Chinese culture from within China and from China’s historical, cultural and social perspectives. Otherwise, we will end up with obstructive misunderstandings and confusion. He also introduced the Symbiotic Business Model focusing on collaboration between state and business as well as between businesses, seamless integration based on complementary approach creating a broader system solutions.
Martin Westin, representing Connect Sverige, enriched the seminar with his and Connect’s own experience in promoting and marketing business ideas and products in China. In his presentation, Westin explained in detail the types of pitfalls companies can end up in, due to the lack of the understanding of the Chinese culture, business models and norms. The most important lesson to learn from such failed attempts is the necessity of doing the preparation work, before plunging into the Chinese market. Simple things like, having translated your catalogues into Chinese and recruiting a good interpreter to accompany you in China can make the difference between success and failure of a business venture. He presented Lisa Perby, who used the example of the product “MonthlyCup”, a hygiene product for women, on ways and means of marketing such a new and challenging item. An interesting discussion followed on how such an “intimate” product can be marketed in other nations, like China, where the norms of “women’s liberation” and open discussion of sexually-related matters differ. Some of the Chinese students in the audience contributed to this discussion with their own knowledge and experience.
Following the lunch break, in which the different speakers and audience had a chance to discuss and exchange contact information, Professor Svante Andersson, Halmstad University, presented the theme of “Internationalization of small and medium sized companies: Born Global Approach, how SMEs gain from the Belt and Road Initiative. Prof. Andersson gave many examples derived from his own research case studies in Halmstad University and other parts of the world. Prof. Andersson zoomed in on the Halmstad-based HMS Connective Devices, a company which went directly from being a research and development small enterprise to global player within a very short time. The key to this amazing success was “innovation”, which is a major factor in all BRI projects now.
Professor Klaus Solberg Søilen, in his presentation titled “An Analysis of the External Environment: The Case of China’s Growing Influence and the BRI”, gave a fascinating economics-based historical narrative of the rise and fall of certain powers in history, including China. He focused on the external factors playing a role in the rise and fall of these powers. For example, the end of the massive Chinese commercial fleet in the 14th century, due to the lack of interest in trade with East Africa and the eastern parts of the Indian Ocean. He contrasted the notion of Geopolitics to Geoeconomics, where he explained China’s interest in Africa and South America in terms of securing its supply on natural resources. He argued that the economic downturn in the western world, has nothing to do with the rise of China, but is purely the result of failed economic and financial policies of the post-WWII era. Another cause is the increased focus on the Adam Smith-inspired individualism on the expense of the common good which was a key notion in the rise of Europe during the Renaissance age as well as in the economic ideas of Friedrich List, the father of German railway system, whose books he highly recommended for everyone who wants to understand the Chinese approach today. Prof. Solberg Søilen also gave his insights of the very productive work he was personally involved in in China, which was achieved with great ease in collaboration with Chinese universities and authorities as soon as a common ground was reached.
Stephen Brawer, Vice-Chairmen of BRIX discussed the “Cultural and Scientific Implications of the BRI” focusing on the universal common values of humanity, rather than the differences between China and the West. Brawer used some of President Xi Jinping’s speeches and statements, and Xi’s notion of “A Shared Future for Mankind”, as an introduction to the best of the Chinese and Western philosophies. The two main characters Brawer presented to the audience were the European philosophical and scientific giant Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551 B.C.-479 B.C.). These two he argued represent the two most enlightened and universal philosophical schools that can bridge the gap between East and West. As Leibniz argued in his “Novissima Sinica” (News from China) the two extreme poles of civilization at the time, Europe in the West and China in the East, can stretch their arms to each other and bring a better life to the rest of the world in between. Brawer even argued that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. Republic, such as Benjamin Franklin, drew inspiration from Confucius’ philosophy and morals in framing their vision of the new republic. He contrasted that to today’s geopoliticians who argue to the opposite, that China’s rise to economic power posed a threat to the U.S. and Europe. Brawer used Michael Pillsbury and his book “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower” as an example of this trend of thinking among leading American and European neo/conservative circles. Brawer stressed that most of the tension and negative views of China and the BRI stem from the incredible lack of knowledge of not only of China’s history, but of what represented the best of European and American philosophical and scientific traditions.
As icing on this wonderful cake, four MBA students at Halmstad University presented an energetic and thoughtful vision of not only of their experience in China, but also of the kind of future the world can enjoy, if knowledge, respectful dialog and understanding is the means of communication between people. The four MBA students of the “Exploring Business in China” Program 2018 (Suci Ariyanti, Andrea Otalvaro, Malte Feddersen and Lasse Jans), energized the whole seminar with their youthful and insightful stories of interacting with and working from inside the Chinese society and universities. This experience, according to them, can help remove all kinds of misunderstandings, suspicions and prejudices between the West and the East, especially China.
Their conclusions were that most stories they hear in the West about China and the Chinese society does not fit with what they themselves have experienced. The Chinese society, which they met, was bustling with energy, creativity and joyful hard work. The image of China can vary dramatically from what you hear and what you experience yourself. They encouraged people to take the step of going to China and see first hand the incredible transformation that society has gone through, and also the optimistic vision of the future that is predominant there. The main conclusion from MAB students were that it is crucial to be in China to explore opportunities and understand how to make Business in China.
The seminar was concluded with a lively discussion on all these matters. But the key question was is how to bring rationality, facts and less prejudice to the discussion of the BRI and China in Sweden and Europe. The obvious answer was to hold more such events and bring that discussion out to the Swedish society. The work of the BRIX was much appreciated by many attendees. Future plans were discussed on how to promote this kind of activity in other parts of Sweden.