by Xinhua writer Li Jizhi
HELSINKI, April 1 (Xinhua) -- Paavo Virkkunen still clearly remembers his interactions with the Chinese almost 30 years ago when he led negotiations about the opening of a non-stop Finnair flight from Helsinki to Beijing.
Although there was a fundamental bilateral air traffic agreement, the negotiations were difficult given that China was only years into its epoch-making reform and opening-up drive, he recalled.
The Chinese aviation authorities were "fair and open," but much effort had to be made to introduce Finland as a travel destination, said Virkkunen. A personal touch did the trick.
PIONEERING AVIATION COOPERATION
Virkkunen once hosted a Chinese delegation from the Civil Aviation Administration of China. After riding a snowmobile and experiencing other winter activities, the head of the delegation said it would be interesting to see how a normal Finnish family lived. Caught unprepared, Virkkunen and his colleague quickly formed a new plan and rented a minivan. He drove the delegation to his parents' house in Taivalkoski, some 750 km north of Helsinki.
Virkkunen's mother prepared a reindeer stew for lunch. His father, a reindeer herder, talked a lot with the Chinese guests with the help of an interpreter. Not so far away, some 300 reindeer could be seen feeding themselves. When leaving the farm, the head of delegation said he learned a great deal about Finnish life and culture.
After the farm visit, Virkkunen found negotiations improved. Virkkunen could not remember what his father and the guests talked about. What he did remember was that his father later said he realized he had stereotypes about the Chinese society, and the "interesting and straightforward" talk helped him change his mind.
Virkkunen believed it was an example of how simple things help build confidence between peoples.
In 1988, Finnair opened a direct flight between the two capital cities, which was the first from Europe to China. The project was a pioneer and many major European airlines followed suit. "SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) opened a direct flight later in the same year, but we were the first. I am very proud of that. SAS has traditionally been a beloved neighbor competitor," said Virkkunen.
The success of the Finnair project was a signal to the world that Finland was ready to connect to China when the populous Asian nation was just ready to open to the outside world. Now, nearly 30 years later, Finnair remains among the top five European airlines operating in China. It flies some 30 direct flights to six Chinese destinations per week on average.
EMBRACING THE NEW
Finnair's innovative spirit and startup style have kept the national carrier moving forward. In January 2017, it started a pilot project installing Alipay on the flight from Shanghai to Helsinki. Alipay, launched by Alibaba Group in 2004, is one of the biggest digital payment systems in China and in the world.
The project was a trial for Chinese customers on the eve of the Lunar New Year. A month later, customers taking the flight to Beijing could also use Alipay on board. The two projects paid off: in-flight sales increased significantly and sometimes even doubled.
By introducing Alipay on board, Finnair probably became the first airline to make a third-party mobile payment functional up in the air. Finnair chief digital officer Katri Harra-Salonen was reluctant to comment on this achievement, but she said much more work was done than installing the new payment system on the ground. "We have spent a lot of time making this method work, the cabin crews get trained, and everything needs to be strictly processed," she said.
The project was completed faster than expected and Katri attributed the amazing speed to the high motivation of the team members and partners. "Everybody was happy to embrace new things," she said.
In 2016, Alipay chose Rovaniemi, a major Arctic city in northern Finland, as the location for a ceremony celebrating its annual global online shopping festival "Single's Day." Numerous Finnish national brands including Iittala, Marttiini, Moomin and the Santa's Village were connected to the new type of payment service in order to offer Chinese customers a familiar payment method.
Alexander Yin, chief financial officer of ePassi, a Finnish financial technology company that has enabled the fast connection between Alipay and Finnish cashiers, said everyone was highly committed to the common goal and proud to make history. "It has been a close collaboration across nationalities, national borders and time zones," he said.
"Although ePassi is the biggest mobile payment in Finland, we see Alipay much ahead of us so we are always eager to learn from them. The same mentality strongly exists in Finnair and other partners," said Yin.
KEEPING THE WORLD CONNECTED
With more Chinese tourists and investment arriving in Finland, many say the people-to-people and commercial exchanges have flourished compared to 30 years ago.
"In the 1980s, it was much of a political way of negotiating. Today it is very much business-oriented," said Virkkunen, who took the position as head of Visit Finland in 2016. Visit Finland is a government-funded organization promoting Finland as an attractive tourism destination and a place of investment.
To lure Chinese visitors, Virkkunen has become an active user of WeChat, an instant messaging app developed by Chinese tech giant Tencent. Being the most popular social network application in China, it boasts 800 million users globally. Virkkunen said he has some 200 friends on Wechat,three-quarters of whom are Westerners who do business in China.
Finnish enterprises interviewed by Xinhua underlined the importance of economic ties. Yin of ePassi said while globalization brings more competition in areas like cost control, it can also push businesses in developed countries to get out of the comfort zone and invest more in innovation.
"Finland is a small country, and exports are of critical importance for it," said Yin. "Therefore, with a fair and open culture and value of globalization, the country's economy would benefit in the long run. It just requires companies and individuals to work harder and collaborate with the world."