Speaking canton-ese: Swiss Consul General Rita Hämmerli-Weschke

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The reserved and meticulous Swiss. The rambunctious energetic Cantonese. One person has found a way they can work together.

There are the Cantonese, and there are the canton-ese. It is hard to imagine two places more different.

The ‘canton-ese’ of Europe live in a scenic mountain stronghold, hemmed in by historically aggressive neighbours held at bay by a fiercely defended neutrality that sees an estimated 2.5 to 4 million firearms (military and private) in a country of 8 million. This stolid independence is concealed beneath an exterior that emphasises the quiet studiousness of discrete bankers and meticulous watchmakers. United under their divided 26 cantons, they wield a strangely successful federation of perhaps the most direct democracy in the world.

The other Cantonese have a lively seaside culture where strength built through hardship come through the tutorial session. Fast and furious, corner-cutting, world-embracing, the Cantonese of Hong Kong still seek their democracy and historically came and went depending on their appreciation of whoever happened to be in the drivers’ seat, British or Chinese.

What could two places so different possibly have in common?

Find friends where you can

“Hong Kong has a lot in common with Switzerland … We’re both in the same boat I would say.”

In some ways, The Swiss Consul General Ritta Hämmerli-Weschke is the quintessential Swiss. An ex-banker of the aforementioned studiousness demeanour, Diplomat isn’t sure if she keeps a SIG SG 550 (standard Swiss military issue assault rifle) under her bed. Her background in finance and economics means she knows how to keep the  channels of commerce open between Hong Kong and Switzerland – one of the most active, and quietest, commercial channels open today. Whether it is gold, watches or wine, Switzerland quietly punches well above the expected weight of a nation of 8 million.

Ms. Hämmerli-Weschke describes her role and the best legacy she could have is as a ‘bridge-builder between Hong Kong [and Switzerland].’ A modest goal befitting the under the radar Swiss, bridge maintainer maybe more accurate as the flow of goods and people is well established. The CG lists off an impressive list of the top connections. Hong Kong is the number one destination, globally, for Switzerland’s renown watches ranging from the classy brands to trendy high-end newcomers. While Switzerland’s wine exports of their domestic product may be modest compared to high volume behemoths like France, Italy and Chile, it is the number six exporter of wines to Hong Kong, acting as a flow through point for oceans of the world’s wines through the highest end auction houses as well as the world’s biggest re-exporters.

The CG doesn’t talk about the lesser known, outside the world of gold bugs, the Switzerland-Hong Kong channel for gold flowing from Western hoards to Chinese vaults. By some estimates, almost half the gold sent to China from Hong Kong passed through Switzerland, particularly Zurich, suggesting the raw material for a Hollywood heist movie. Holding most of the world’s biggest and most secure refineries of the yellow stuff, allowing gold to be melted, combined and repackaged, Switzerland is a natural transit point.

“Big financial centres that are not the US or UK, we are big financial centres, but politically – not so big. We have the same problems, the same issues, and it’s clear we need the collaboration between us.”

Of course, banking is the most obvious connection. The CG worked in banking for years before coming to the  diplomatic service at a relatively late 26 years old. One area she has focused on in Hong Kong is working with the Secretary of Financial Services and Treasury, Professor KC Chan and his team. Switzerland has recently established a Double Taxation Agreement with Hong Kong. The two jurisdictions find they have much in common.

“Big financial centres that are not the US or UK, we are big financial centres, but politically – not so big. We have the same problems, the same issues, and it’s clear we need the collaboration between us.” Both have been under attack in the past at international forums for their secrecy and reasonable taxes. Switzerland in particular has been the target of American pressure and Hong Kong has, in the past, only escaped OECD blacklisting with support from Beijing. While a recent survey of Swiss private bankers shows most expect banking privacy to disappear within three years, Switzerland still tops the list for banking secrecy. Hong Kong followed closely at third, accordingly to the ill named Tax Justice Network. However, the recently signed Double Taxation Agreement means that transparency between  the two jurisdictions will be at a high standard.

In addition, Switzerland is also part of the European Free Trade Association. Hong Kong signed a Free Trade Agreement with EFTA that took effect in October 2012, giving business people in Hong Kong another level of comfort in working with the small ‘c’ canton-ese.

HK-Swiss CelebrationHK – SWISS CELEBRATION: Mr. Daniel Küng, CEO of Switzerland Global Enterprise, Ms. Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch, State
Secretary for Economic Affairs, Mr. Gregory So, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development and CG Hämmerli-
Weschke open the Swiss Business Hub in Hong Kong and celebrate the FTA and the DTA and the 30th anniversary of the Swiss
Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

Keep that watch ticking

The beginning a love story that carries on today.

The CG’s career has been about making things work. The Swiss system for training diplomats reflects their apprenticeship philosophy of education – learning by doing. She had 2 months training in Switzerland followed by 18 months in Rome learning the job. This was followed by 2 more months at home with exams that qualified her as a bona fide Swiss diplomat.

Her first posting was not her choice – it never is. The Swiss corps do not have scope for personal requests – you go  where you are told. That being said, it is very accommodating for issues such as allowing children to finish schooling and ensuring there is schooling in the first place. Frankfurt was maybe a little too close home for the liking of a new diplomat – a four hour drive from Bern up the A5. Her main acquisition was the love of her life – Herr Weschke. The two met and were married in short order in Frankfurt, beginning a love story that carries on today.

He followed her to Tokyo where she was also in charge of buildings – the impressive Swiss Embassy as well as the many staff quarters in Japan’s capital. That expertise stood her in good stead for her next posting when she returned to Germany to help relocate the Embassy to the new capital of Berlin in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“It was a really strange situation.” Staff were still living in Bonn and commuting to Berlin for meetings, 6 hours drive away. Since the Ambassador had already moved, Switzerland rented his Bonn residence out to German film crews producing soap operas.

The new Embassy was, in fact, the old Embassy – with a fascinating history. It was built in 1871 by the famous doctor Friedrich Theodor Frerichs. Acquired during a time of tumult in Germany and when Switzerland had a policy of acquiring, not renting, embassies, the Swiss purchased the property in 1919. The Embassy officially opened in 1920. The Swiss managed to hold the property through WWII, narrowly avoiding a relocation for Hitler’s planned  renovation of Berlin and accidental demolition by bombing Allied forces. Isolated and neglected during the Cold  War, this small palace again became hot property when the near by Berlin Wall fell. The Germans requested its  purchase – the Swiss said no. It sits in a supremely privileged spot between the Reichstag, seat of Germany’s  government, and the chancellery, home to Angela Merkel’s offices.

For her efforts, Ms. Hämmerli-Weschke was rewarded with a promotion to Deputy Consul General of Osaka – back in her much admired Japan. She focussed on her first loves of trade, economics and finance and then did so again in her next posting in booming Dubai. She remembers that in the span of a few short years, a 20 minute drive to the airport became a 3 hour grind as the rampant economy gave rise to automobile ownership and a surging population.

18 years abroad was unusual by Swiss standards – “I was lucky – they forgot about me!”. Ms. Hämmerli-Weschke was recalled to Bern where she spent five years working on planning the expenses of the foreign ministry. Then – Hong Kong.

A well-behaved community

Her biggest problem is people getting into fights with taxi drivers on Friday nights – a thankfully rare occurrence.

Most consul generals have a number in their head – how many of their nationals are in jail in Hong Kong, needing their ministrations. For the Swiss CG, the number is mercifully small – zero. Her biggest problem is people getting into fights with taxi drivers on Friday nights – a thankfully rare occurrence. The former banker does know her numbers though – 2,084 Swiss registered in Hong Kong. Registration is compulsory.

This unusual quirk of Switzerland means it is the law that citizens must register with their government when they live abroad To help compliance, there is now a mobile phone app that travelers can use to register if they wish. There is a pending law that will remove that compulsion, but it is the first time Diplomat has heard tell of such a thing.

The small community is also represented by a staggering 200 companies; a big number from a small country. The number that are multinationals in a wide range of industries is impressive; banking, pharmaceuticals, watches, insurance (and reinsurance), food and beverage,, distribution and logistics, customs and testing services and much more. The Swiss Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong is lively and active. Smaller companies may need a little help getting to know Hong Kong – Ms. Hämmerli-Weschke felt they tended to look straight to China, but could benefit more from establishing themselves in Hong Kong first.

No doubt that the independent people of a nation founded in an anti-tax revolt find low tax Hong Kong a welcoming place. The Consul General and her family certainly have. Count on her to keep ‘canton-ese’ and Cantonese gears meshing and commerce flowing for some years to come.

Swiss Solar BoatPLANET SOLAR ARRIVES: The world’s largest solar boat in our harbour under Swiss solar power. (Credit: Erwin Lüthi)