The envoy of a country that trades in smiles – and windmills and medicines – has found many paths to joy in China.
For an ambassador of “a very small country”, Danish envoy Friis Arne Petersen juggles a lot of balls in the air.
Last week he was found at a roundtable discussion at Nanjing Normal University.
Then he was off to the Jinling Hotel to kick off the Denmark-Jiangsu energy efficiency and environmental protection seminar, joined by 11 Danish companies for panels on clean tech, industrial energy saving, converting waste to energy and eco-cities – all topics dear to the collective heart of his country.
Meanwhile, back in Beijing, 18 Chinese winners of a design competition on the embassy’s micro blog at QQ.com were awarded prizes after correctly answering 20 questions about Danish design and design companies.
“There are a lot of things we are engaged in,” says Petersen. “Thanks to our colleagues’ efficient work on two blogs (there’s another one on Sina.com) we get a lot of stories told.” The two blogs have about 280,000 followers interested in Danish design, culture, history, food and the nation’s society.
Petersen, who came to China last August after serving for five years as Denmark’s ambassador to the United States, says he’s especially proud of what he sees as another Danish treasure: happiness.
“Danes happen to be, judged by different opinion polls, the most happy people of the world,” he says.
“Many are surprised by that. I think it has a lot to do with our welfare society, where housing, education and health are provided by society and by government.
“At the same time, we have a very competitive, capitalistic private sector – so that we can finance the welfare society with the private sector’s achievements.
“We redistribute wealth by taxation, and we have a very important big public sector, taking care of those who aren’t capable of doing that in the best possible way themselves.
“So social equality, social justice, social cohesion are very important to make people happy. That allows people to study what they are good at, rather than to think they could make millions doing something else.”
Taxes would level the situation anyway, he says, “so people can really go for what they are interested in doing with their lives.”
Last week the embassy launched a four-month campaign with a Danish fashion company in seven Chinese cities to find a ‘Kopenhagen Fur Happiness Spokesperson’.
Contestants in the fashion-company-sponsored event will share thoughts and insights on happiness and must show willingness to influence other people in positive ways.
The top winner receives a 150,000 yuan prize and a one-week paid trip to Denmark.
The competition – in Harbin, Changchun, Shenyang, Dalian, Beijing, Shanghai and Taiyuan – ends with a Beijing finale on Jan 11.
Petersen, though, doesn’t need to wait until next year to find his own happiness in China’s capital.
An avid reader of books and newspapers, he also likes sports, especially running and tennis.
“It’s a good combination,” says the tall, tanned envoy. “I like to exercise to exhaustion, then sit down to relax and read.”
While the embassy champions bicycles as part of a greener lifestyle, Petersen likes to get around the capital on foot if he’s not in a hurry.
“I like to go around and see places – act as if I’m a tourist to see and understand. Not just museums and historical sites: I love watching cities, how the planning is done, what the reality is like for the people who live there.
“I think Beijing has a lot to offer. There are still old hutongs preserved,” he says, reflecting on a recent dinner at a refurbished Beijing courtyard home hosted by the Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
“It was wonderful to see and experience that lifestyle of a traditional Beijing house that people lived in until 20 years ago.”
An eager traveler, Petersen’s favorite China trip so far was a family holiday to Yunnan.
“We liked seeing the many tribes and indigenous cultures, the pristine nature, the mountainous regions. It was beautiful!”
“But I haven’t seen everything yet, so I’m looking forward to seeing more places and I’m sure there will be many competitors.”
The autonomous regions of Tibet and Inner Mongolia are high on his list, and he’s keen to experience China’s high-speed trains.
“I think going from Xining to Lhasa would be fantastic,” he says.
Tiny Denmark has a big community here, the ambassador says, because “we have more than 425 Danish companies in China. Not just in Beijing and Shanghai, but also Suzhou, for example there are 180 Danish companies in their industrial park.”
There are about 1,000 Danes in greater Beijing, and while about 25 percent of China-Denmark trade is in high-profile green energy, “pharmaceuticals and medical equipment represent an even bigger sector, with even more potential for growth”.
The Danish Chamber of Commerce is strong around the country, he says, and as ambassador he has been active with the chamber board and an enthusiastic promoter of culture as well.
“One of our great successes has been our ongoing EU-China Youth Year,” he says.
“At an open house at the embassy, we had more than 1,000 maybe 1,300 young Chinese citizens coming here curious to see how we live and what we do.
“I had the opportunity to meet and greet more young Chinese in a single day than in the rest of the year,” he says, and the way they behaved in the crowd taught him a lot.
“You see how they can function in a limited space, very polite. In this populous country, they have to get along, cohabit in a really generous way.
“But you also take care of your own interests – to be the one that gets the photo with the ambassador or have a chat with the ambassador.
“So it’s a balance of the understanding that yes, we are so many, but you as an individual want to make it. I think that’s quite attractive.”