The easy answer to these questions is ‘yes’. In the last four years, three EU-China high-level people-to-people dialogues (HPPD) have been held in the presence of the highest-ranked leaders from both sides. The objectives of increasing student and professor exchanges, multiplying meetings between youth organisations, strengthening cooperation in the cultural field, triggering dialogue on gender equality, and many others, have been met.
An issue arises as to whether all these actions have produced a real impact or not. What we can see over the past decade is that they have improved relations between the two regions, as the Chinese and Europeans are more tolerant today of each other’s cultural differences, dissimilar ways of living, thinking and varying values. As time has progressed, Europeans and Chinese people are more curious about each other and willing to penetrate the different aspects of each other's societies. Nonetheless, both Europe and China still have a long way to go before they can consider the hard work of building bridges of trust. The Europeans still look suspiciously at hyper-dynamic China and the Chinese fail to grasp Europe's caution. Despite the thousands of beneficiaries of scholarship schemes (the EU's Erasmus+ and the China Scholarship Council) and the promotion of respective cultures, be it via festivals, exhibitions or media, mutual perceptions remain widely biased by stale preconceptions.
Thanks to its meteoric economic and urban growth, its atypical political system and inherent contradictions, China has been increasingly drawing the world's attention in the last couple of decades. Yet, if initially China was regarded with great excitement as a rising power and a country of opportunities, the viewing angle has now shifted towards less enthusing aspects of its society. With some complicity of Western media, in the eyes of many Europeans China today is associated with high pollution levels, social inequalities and a lack of freedom of expression. This last aspect is undoubtedly crucial in shaping Europe's perception of China. The values of freedom and democracy that pervade traditional European thinking inevitably orientate the interpretation of other societies. The limitations to the social media environment and the ambiguous definition of academic and artistic independence constitute an issue that China still needs to come to terms with, both in its domestic discourse and in its external relations.
European beneficiaries of people-to-people exchanges with China are typically educated people with strong analytical and critical skills. They have an evident interest in China's societal changes and in initiatives of grassroots movements, but their interest often clashes with China's top-down restrictions related to the access of information or with legislations hampering effective cooperation. China should find a way to process, assimilate and offer its modernity more transparently to its counterparts.
Moreover, language and civilisation courses offered in Europe by Confucius Institutes do not prove alone to be sufficient to make China fully understood. Why do so few Europeans know a literary masterpiece such as Dream of a Red Chamber? Why are great movies from Chinese directors such as Zhang Yimou or Jia Zhangke only known to restricted elites? Why do world-class universities such as Tsinghua, Renmin or Fudan still lag behind in attracting European brains? Traditional culture is there to stay but if China aims to stimulate the curiosity of a broader audience and the interest of new generations of scholars, it should endeavour to convey not only its millenary heritage but also its contemporary creation in more modern and diverse formats and modes.
In fact, besides China's deficiencies in reaching European hearts, Europe also has to ask itself to what extent it is committed to overcoming these difficulties. Is the EU concretely facilitating EU-China mutual understanding? Firstly, Europe needs a change of mindset. While Europe should not neglect its own values when dealing with China, it should not rely exclusively on its own societal model for interpreting the rest of the world, keeping in mind that a fit-for-all model may not necessarily apply to countries with different history, size and population. Secondly, China still fights to understand the balance between priorities and interests set at EU level and in member states. This two-fold dimension is an obstacle to identifying a genuinely European dimension.
For decades, especially in coincidence with the economic crisis, the EU has spoken the language of economics and finance and this has stained the discourse on Europe as a cohesively united entity. Not enough attention has been paid to communicate the cultural significance of the EU beyond its economic dimension and this is reflected also in the EU external relations. People-to-people relations are at the core of China's strategy to establish closer links with Europe. Major investments in establishing Confucius Institutes and Cultural Centres around the world prove that China attaches great importance to fostering international relations by means of soft power. Some member states have long-standing cultural cooperation with China and the EU is now about to adopt a coherent strategy on culture in its external relations. This will facilitate the networking of EU delegations, EU National Institutes of Culture (EUNIC) and grassroots organisations to exchange ideas and carry out joint projects with partner countries such as China.
Concerns have been increasing over the severe budget cuts some European universities have suffered over the years. In response, universities pooling resources and reinforcing university cooperation with China has been crucial to carry out research activities, seminars and events contributing to increase the knowledge on China both for students and academics, but also for a broader audience. However, recently some European universities are questioning the added value of hosting Chinese centres within their own institutions. Their arguments relating to the free teaching of certain sensible topics are reasonable, but the solution should not be the closing of centres. There is no reason to be suspicious if cooperation is based on solid multi-annual planning defining European interests vis-à-vis China and identifying the best ways to achieve them.
In a win-win spirit, Europe should make clear to what extent it is interested in Chinese proposals, which joint actions it is ready and capable of supporting, what it is open to negotiate and what it considers definitely un-negotiable. Europe would become less wary if it were able to respond appropriately to China's pro-activeness. In concrete terms, this would imply investments at the EU-level in cultural and education project where a profit for Europe can be clearly identified.
The framework initiative of ‘One Belt, One Road’, a symbolic route bringing Eurasia back as a crucial territory, opens the opportunity to expand people-to-people exchanges with China and to bring in new countries as key actors of EU-Asia cooperation. The ongoing review of the EU-China 2020 Agenda for Cooperation provides the ideal framework to the EU and China for re-discussing the role of people-to-people contacts in the wider context of EU-China relations. People-to-people exchanges are in fact fundamental not only to strengthen human links, but are the key for making all other dialogues more effective and productive.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s Policy Paper ‘EU-China: New Directions, New Priorities‘ which brings together the views of Friends of Europe’s large network of scholars, policymakers and business representatives on the future of EU-China relations. These articles will provide immediate input for the EU-China Summit on 12-13 July 2016, but their value and relevance goes well beyond this year. They set the tone for EU-China relations over the next decade.
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