For about two decades, historical research has portrayed the Cold War as a truly global conflict. By examining smaller and seemingly marginal actors, scholars have uncovered a complex web of relationships complicating the binary confrontation between the Eastern and Western blocs. Ariane Knüsel’s monograph "China’s European Headquarters" fits neatly into this pattern, as it examines an under-researched aspect of the Cold War: the relationship between Switzerland and China. The Swiss case is indeed peculiar and therefore relevant. As a capitalist democracy, the country was closely aligned with the Western, US-led bloc. On the other hand, the concept of neutrality is so deeply ingrained in Swiss political culture that the government in Bern kept its distance from the Western alliance during the Cold War. It was this anomaly that enabled China to turn Switzerland into a diplomatic hub not only for Western Europe, but for significant parts of the globe. The rise and fall of this hub are the focus of Knüsel’s study.
Of the four chapters into which the book is organised, the first three follow a broad chronological outline from 1949 to the late 1970s. Chapter 1 traces the evolution of the Sino-Swiss relationship in the early to mid-1950s. Switzerland was not only one of the first Western countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950 but also one of the first to be allowed to open a mission in Beijing, and it always conducted its diplomatic relations with China at the ambassadorial level. The Swiss did not join the COCOM and CHINCOM embargos outlawing the export of specified goods to the Eastern bloc and China respectively, although a gentleman’s agreement with the USA established quotas for the export of COCOM goods. Considering these and other concessions the government in Bern made to Washington, the PRC rightly mistrusted the self-proclaimed Swiss role as neutral mediator. The second chapter examines the period of the Great Leap Forward and the Sino-Soviet split. The third chapter covers two very distinct periods: during the early Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, Chinese diplomats were under much pressure and the embassy in Bern pursued a harder rhetorical stance than the PRC’s Foreign Ministry. On the other hand, the Swiss embassy staff in Beijing experienced the protests of the Red Guards as traumatic. Nonetheless, Bern pursued a conciliatory approach, which was more successful than the more confrontational stance taken by other Western states. In the 1970s, many countries across the world, including most Western democracies, established or upgraded their diplomatic relations with China, and Switzerland accordingly lost its special role as a place from which China maintained its relations with the world at large.
All three chapters address a number of recurring themes. The first of these is the role of Switzerland as a hub: both Chinese envoys to and delegations from countries with which China had no official relations regularly travelled via the alpine republic, as this was where they could obtain the necessary visa. Money and propaganda material were also regularly funnelled through Switzerland. An issue that created tensions and conflicts between the two countries was the presence of Tibetan exiles in Switzerland after the rebellion of 1959, where public opinion welcomed them as members of a fellow “mountain people” (p. 113). Chinese protests reached boiling point after the founding of the Tibetan Institute in the Swiss village of Rikon, which coincided with the climax of the Cultural Revolution. Thereafter, the Tibet issue caused far less of a stir, even when the Dalai Lama visited Switzerland in 1973. In the economic field, one of the book’s key themes is the handling of embargo goods dealers through the PRC embassy in Bern. Before the embargo was lifted in 1972, Beijing used the illegal assistance of these traders (mostly Western European nationals, with the majority from West Germany) to obtain crucial technologies, especially in the nuclear sector. Finally, Knüsel carefully examines the Sino-Swiss economic relations. She demonstrates that the overall amount of trade was insignificant for both sides, except for specific sectors – for example, Switzerland’s meat-processing industry relied heavily on intestines from China for the production of sausages. And except for the initial phase of the Cultural Revolution, when they were frowned upon as a symbol of bourgeois decadence, Swiss luxury watches found a ready market in communist China, not least among the leadership. Apart from that, however, the Chinese side complained constantly about the high Swiss prices and was much more interested in Swiss technological know-how than in the actual products. And despite the allure of doing business with China, Swiss companies were careful not to jeopardise relations with their primary markets in Western Europe and North America. Contrary to what Knüsel suggests, this can hardly explain why Switzerland’s China trade lagged behind that of other West European countries, whose enterprises’ interests equally lay in the Western hemisphere.
In the fourth chapter, Knüsel pursues a thematic approach. Focusing on the 1950s and 1960s, she details the role of Switzerland as a hub for Chinese intelligence-gathering. Although many of the espionage and counter-intelligence activities she describes are fairly generic, Knüsel demonstrates that the intelligence networks run from the embassy in Bern (where many diplomats doubled as agents) were more diverse than in other comparable Western countries. This was partly due to the specific Swiss conditions: nowhere else, for example, could PRC officials tap into a reservoir of people from the Republic of China on Taiwan, who were present as members of international organisations with a seat in Switzerland. On the other hand, Swiss counterintelligence also operated under specific conditions: unlike other Western countries, Switzerland had a centralised intelligence agency – the Federal Police – but where the surveillance of suspected agents involved the local police authorities, the federal system often lacked efficiency. Swiss banking secrecy could also get in the way. Overall, the Swiss authorities pursued a rather lenient approach; only in cases of explicit law-breaking did suspected agents face sanctions.
Knüsel’s monograph is based on a wide array of sources. Due to the increasing restrictions limiting the use of archives in the PRC, her analysis of the Chinese side incorporates a lot of published materials such as source editions or memoirs. On the other hand, she has assembled documents not only from the Swiss Foreign Ministry but also including company and police record, as well as research in German, British, Dutch and American archives. Even so, Knüsel shows great awareness of the limitations of her research and is careful to point out where here conclusions are preliminary and await the further opening of relevant archives (e.g. pp. 167, 254).
"China’s European Headquarters" provides fascinating insights into the post-war histories of both China and Switzerland. It adds important facets to our knowledge of how the PRC organised its foreign policy and intelligence-gathering in the first decades of its existence. Knüsel demonstrates the potentials but also the limits of Switzerland’s neutrality and its complex relations with the Western alliance when it came to dealing with socialist countries like China. On the other hand, the paradoxical nature of Switzerland's China policy is not fully explained. Why the government in Bern generally chose a non-confrontational and conciliatory approach towards a country with which it had no close economic links, even where Swiss interests would have suggested otherwise, is left somewhat open. And a thematic rather than chronological approach would have given the argument more stringency. Overall, however, Ariane Knüsel’s book provides an important and welcome contribution to the history of the global Cold War.