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Building Chinese relations

Students from China attending Norwegian universities and Norwegian students in China are an untapped resource for Norway. Starting September 2010, they will be eligible to become members of a newly created alumni association, followed by one in November for Japanese...

The new alumni programme is an initiative between Innovation Norway and the Research Council of Norway to help facilitate ties between Norwegian and Chinese students in each other’s countries. The focus is initially on students with a Masters or PhD degree, regardless of where in Norway or China they have studied.

The programme will help students network and maintain contact with friends and organizations. For universities, it will allow them to follow students and remain in contact with them in a more organised manner. For businesses, which can be associate members, it will enable them to find contacts with expertise and understanding of Norway.

China is undoubtedly significant for Norway. It is the country’s most important trade partner in Asia and a fast-growing economy. Despite the downturn in the global economy last year, Norway exported goods to China for NOK 13 billion during the first 11 months in 2009, an almost 40% increase from a year earlier, according to Norway’s trade and industry ministry. During the same time, Norway imported NOK 30 billion, an increase of 4.5%. Norway is currently working on a possible bilateral trade agreement with China.

“The underlying thought for this is that China is one of our most important trade partners,” said Per Christer Lund, Innovation Norway counsellor in science and technology in Japan and leader for the project. “There is interest on the commercial and research side. Without this push, I don’t think (the programme) would have been realized.”

EXPO 2010 Launch

The first event will be the launch of the China alumni network in September in connection with Expo 2010 in Shanghai. A website is being developed where potential members can sign up and read relevant news and event information. There are already other countries, such as the Netherlands and Australia, which have Chinese alumni programmes. But for Norway, this would mark the first such comprehensive Chinese alumni programme.

Norway’s Trade and Industry Minister Trond Giske in meeting with China’s Deputy Trade Minister Yi Xiaozhun in January 2010 to discuss a bilateral trade agreement with China.
© Norwegian Ministry of Trade and Industry

“China is the pilot for what we hope to do in other countries,” said Kim Davis, Research Council of Norway senior advisor in the division for innovation. “The website is being developed so that we can easily add others. Certainly Japan will be one, then the other BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia and India.”

The Research Council was behind the initial idea for an alumni network, according to Lund. He met with the Research Council last autumn to outline the programme, which was kicked off in January 2010. He said its inspiration has been the alumni network at NTNU in Trondheim, the Netherlands Alumni Network in China, and the social networking site LinkedIn.

Lund estimates several hundred Chinese students have been coming to Norway every year for the past 15-20 years. There has been increase in the past 5-10 years because of the easier access to funding and easing up of visa rules. He expects there could be about 3,000 to 4,000 potential Chinese members and 1,000 from the Norwegian side in the China alumni programme. In the Japanese network, the numbers would be closer to 300-500 in total.

“The history of alumni from Japan is much older, but the numbers are less,” said Lund. “Chinese students have been visiting Norwegian universities ever since I was a student at NTNU in the 1980s.”

The major challenge will be to get hold of Chinese members, which have to be invited to join. Norwegian universities will be responsible for inviting Chinese students to the network. The three biggest Norwegian universities, located in Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim, have historically had the largest Chinese student population. Another hurdle is identifying potential Chinese members, who sometimes adopt Western names while in Norway.

NTNU’s main building Gløshaugen © Mentz Indergaard/NTNU Info

Door Opener

Once a member, the network will have a two-fold purpose. On the one hand, it will be a service for students and foreign students while they are abroad. The other is for Norwegian university professors, research companies, and businesses, so that they can connect with those students who have gone on to a high position in China and who could perhaps act as an ambassador for Norwegian interests. Networking is regarded as more important in China relative to other countries.

“You don’t get anywhere if you don’t know someone,” said Lund. “Things are more done on personal relations, rather than formal structures.”

This could be of interest for Norwegian businesses in all kinds of advanced technology and engineering companies, such as energy, environment, maritime, ICT, and materials. Trond Giske, Norway’s trade and industry minister, recently highlighted Norway’s competence within environmental technology as a possible business potential opportunity within China. During a trip to China in January 2010, the minister visited Norwegian company Metallkraft’s production plant in Yangzhou. The company recycles and treats spent slurry, the material required in the wafer cutting process, a crucial step in the production of solar panels.

Some of the other Norwegian companies with a presence in China include Aker Solutions, DnB NOR, Det Norske Veritas, Elkem, Framo, Grieg Shipping Group, Höegh Autoliners, Hydro, Jotun, Kongsberg, Orkla and Statoil, according to the Norwegian Business Forum in Beijing.