In July, we embarked on a fresh learning journey to Stockholm, Sweden to explore Innovations in Public Policy. Live vicariously through one of our participants, Aaron Zhu, as he reflects on what he learned about kindness, trust, travel, migration & the environment:
"THE SYSTEM IN SWEDEN is different from both that in China and America; it will give you a totally new perspective on policy-making.” Jared told me before the trip, and it turned out to be true.
About Social Trust
Recollecting my first day in Stockholm, it shocked me. I travel to Europe and the U.S. often, and I always had to consider the currency exchange rate because the Euro and US Dollars are much more expensive compared to the Chinese currency. I have to admit that I felt a little happy when I first heard about the exchange rate between the Ren Min Bi (RMB) and Swedish Krona. However, the truth is, the prices in Sweden are not something to celebrate. When I entered a 7-11 and picked up a drink I usually buy, the 25 krona price tag made me put it down. I just couldn’t understand why the price was so high - after all, I only needed to pay 3 RMB in China (only 2.4 Krona) for the same drink! Costs related to providing social welfare was my speculation at that time. Nevertheless, I couldn’t figure out the exact reason behind the high prices - could it be because Swedes earn a lot? Was it inflation because money is worth less, just like in Japan? But I believe I must have missed something out.
In the following days, I had the chance to engage extensively with local people; something I never had the opportunity to do in other countries before. For example, in a seminar on entrepreneurship, Martin, a local expert, used some persuasive data to show that Sweden has very high taxes, which the government collects and gives back to taxpayers in the form of social welfare. I recognized the policy’s merits because it ensures the basic rights of all citizens (e.g. housing, basic living allowance etc.) regardless of their background. It also answered my question on the first day - prices of goods are high because of these taxes.
However, when Martin asked about whether we would support such a policy in our own country, I was one of only two who voted against it. Influenced by the principle of the Limited government of John Locke* as well as my personal experience in my own country (China), I could not be sure that my government would use the money gained from taxes in the right way. I believe such a policy works in Sweden because of a concept (that I did not know about before) integral to Sweden culture—that of social trust.
I never thought that basic kindness and trust could be influential in policy-making; that people are more likely to trust each other when they are kind to each other, and are also more likely to trust their government when they trust each other. This is a process because people definitely do not trust their government if they don’t even trust each other in the first place.
For example, in some countries, citizens feel compelled to protect themselves from others as security is a real problem and they think that others may hurt or steal from them. Though Sweden also has security problems, the basic trust and kindness that exists among people provide a relatively harmonious environment that allows for the implementation of high taxes and extensive welfare.
In summary, the macro social trust is built on every single smile exchanged between people. They even could invite a stranger to eat breakfast with them (which happened to my peer on the trip!). Isn’t that a form of social trust? The nation’s economy would be broke if the government only gave welfare without collecting relatively high taxes, but collecting high taxes must be based on social trust. This is a simple act of kindness, yet this is the basis of social harmony; it is simple, but yet profound at the same time.
Flowing water, floating reeds, moving boats and the blowing wind... in the environmentally-friendly community Hammarby, I felt, touched, smelled. This is just nature incorporated into cities, I used to think. But this place has a more complex system. Firstly, the recycling of trash. Unlike my own country, many countries including Sweden have a very good system of waste-sorting. More than that, in Hammarby you don’t need manpower to collect waste in the community. The trash bins connect to underground tubes, and those tubes use suction to send trash of different types directly into a big collection container, so the truck can take waste away without it entering the community spaces.
Secondly, waste is not all useless. Hammarby transforms food and water waste into energy through the process of biological degradation. Chargers for electric vehicles are located everywhere in the community and solar panels cover the walls of buildings. Most interestingly, the roof of buildings are covered by plants which can store rainwater and vaporize them - cooling the area so that extensive air-conditioning is not required. So basically, Hammarby is the model of the future for building an environmentally-friendly community. I care about the environment, but I never took it really seriously before, thinking that my actions could be just as simple as throwing rubbish into the bins.
That’s why I was shocked that the Swedish take environmental issues so seriously. They not only built the city of Stockholm by 1/3 of green land and 1/3 of water, but built a wonderful community to protect the environment and tackle all kinds of environment issues. The recent White House report shows that we are facing very serious climate problems, but if we could spread this kind of community to the whole world, wouldn't this make the whole world beautiful again as it was before? Mankind is losing our spirit in the ocean of tall buildings and horn sounds of cars. It is time for us to find who we are again.
Immigration and Cultural Integration
This world is globalizing. The huge planet has already become a little village. After all, we only need 18 hours to travel the longest airplane route from Newark to Singapore. Immigration has quietly become a common thing. Some people migrate because they want to experience different cultures, while others do so because they have fallen in love with another place. Yet some people become immigrants forced by the wars and chaos of their homeland. As a future immigrant myself, I want to have a better future, but the problem of cultural integration is something I need to consider the most.
Although I practice Western culture a lot, most people insist that I, as a Chinese, am still very different from an American. Is it my skin colour or physical condition? But now I believe what those people said are just their own perspectives.
We met some Middle Eastern and African immigrants in Hylte. They had a really difficult journey from their homeland to Sweden escaping civil wars and hardship. They were eager to start a new life of hope and dreams. Sweden didn’t disappoint them; they received Swedish residential passes and were offered free education. They were also taught Swedish and English - for free! Of course I knew beforehand that Sweden is really accepting towards refugees, but what I saw, and came to appreciate most was their efforts in cultural integration. Some immigrants are Muslims and I asked whether it was very tough to fit into Sweden's primarily non-Muslim culture. Jack, the guy I talked with, said he had no problems practising Muslim customs and being good friends with Swedish Protestants at the same time.
I am going to be in the U.S. 2 years and I can’t even count how many people have written articles to tell Chinese how hard is to fit in the US. I wasn’t actually affected by them because I always thought that Westerners and I are no different, but those rumours still bother me sometimes because I lack the information myself. But based on Jack’s story, I suddenly understand that you don’t really need to force yourself to be like the locals. You may practice the local customs if you like, but if you don’t want to change your own traditions, no one would bother you because they would respect you and your culture. Something I learnt was that different cultures can be practiced together. I found my answer of how to fit into another country, and the answer is not to worry: firstly, the difference between races are not that jarring in the global world today. Secondly, having some skills and being kind to others ensures that everyone will respect and befriend you.
In the last part of my reflections, I want to say another important thing I learned, about the experience of travel. I like travelling a lot because I like to experience different places and cultures. But If I can add something into my trip (just like this course in Sweden), to make my trip not only about visiting sights, but to communicate deeply with locals and enter places with real local livelihoods and experiences, wouldn't that be perfect? Even now, after days of classes, I am still going to smile with my heart when I hear something about Sweden and the people that I’ve met there. I think - that was truly an authentic travelling and learning experience.
Tack, Trevlight att traffas. Thanks, it was nice meeting you.