The Sino-French Connection
Reflections on a half-century of diplomatic relations between China and France
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UPDATED: January 20, 2014 NO. 4 JANUARY 23, 2014
Bilateral Perspectives

Li Xiaojing, an employee of Qingdao Customs in Shandong Province

As far as I know, most Chinese people have a good impression of France and French culture. Its capital Paris is seen as a symbol of romance and fashion. More and more people have begun to study French in recent years. Many of my former classmates at Beijing Language and Culture University chose to go to France for further study after their graduation. They mainly chose to study design, art and other majors relating to fashion.

With the rapid economic development of China, French luxury goods are also becoming more sought after in Chinese households. For years, France has been an important tourist destination for Chinese people, but many of them have complained that the public security situation in Paris is not good, as many Chinese travelers reported the experience of being robbed.

Comparatively speaking, Chinese people know a lot about France, while many French people are ignorant of China. To my knowledge, they see China as it was 10 years or even decades ago. I remember when I was still a French major studying in Beijing, as a volunteer I received former President Sarkozy's delegation visiting China. One French governmental official asked many strange questions about China, which made me feel uncomfortable. Their understanding of China is far from adequate. I think this might be due to the intensified negative news reports by the foreign media about China.

The Sino-French relationship can be seen as a model for Sino-European relations. With the deepening of mutual economic and cultural exchanges, I think more and more French people will understand more about China and love China.

David Gosset, Director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School, Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum

One repeatedly attributes to Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) a statement he probably never uttered and which has become an inept cliché: "When China awakes, the world will shake." In a press conference on September 9, 1965, then French President De Gaulle presented a more nuanced view: "A fact of considerable significance is at work and is reshaping the world: China's very deep transformation puts her in a position to have a global leading role."

Time has confirmed De Gaulle's prediction, as the Chinese renaissance has modified the world's distribution of power in a gradual and peaceful process without abrupt discontinuity or violent disruption.

On January 27, four days before the beginning of the Year of the Horse, one will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and the People's Republic of China (PRC). From a French perspective, the full recognition of Beijing's government was, above all, the decision of one man, De Gaulle, one of France's greatest statesmen and a colossus of 20th-century world politics.

His acumen and strategic thinking were not only at the origin of a special relationship between Paris and Beijing, but the spirit of his groundbreaking decision remains a point of reference for the future of Sino-French cooperation.

His reasoning was solidly based upon two pillars which are also two distinctive features of Gaullism: a long-term view and the effort to take into consideration, beyond transitory events or relatively short-lived phenomena, more permanent realities.

Obviously, France's early recognition of the PRC was a political gesture with geopolitical motives—by recognizing Beijing, Paris signaled to both Washington and Moscow that France was an autonomous diplomatic force. De Gaulle was also well aware that China's strategic objective was to consolidate her sovereignty and to strengthen her independence.

De Gaulle believed that a multipolar order would be more conducive to sustainable equilibrium than either unipolarity or the dangerous bipolar structure. In some circles, his politics of grandeur caused uneasiness and uproar.

The imperatives of liberté, égalité and fraternité, French propositions to the world, have been both a product and a generator of this passion for grandeur, only the exalted aspiration of a nation in movement could proclaim such revolutionary principles but they were at the same time the source of a powerful collective energy.

In the Chinese context, centrality—zhong—mirrors the French grandeur. If a sense of grandeur inspired the French monarchs, emperors and presidents, the "Middle Country" envisioned for itself centrality under Heaven. Versailles and the Forbidden City, Place de la Concorde and Tiananmen Square are obvious architectural illustrations of the correspondence between the "Grande Nation" and the "Middle Country."

Animated by a conscious effort of radiation, France aims to federate around what she conceives and enunciates as an enlightening project. By contrast, China's impact is by gravitation, wherein the "Middle Country" coheres around its demographic mass and the continuity of its civilization.

Beyond the contingent parameters of Sino-French relations, transient administrations or politico-economic conditions, Paris and Beijing, concerned by the destiny of mankind, will always find it necessary to articulate an explicit grandeur and an implicit centrality.

Ironically, the gap between France's representation of herself and the weight of her relative power is widening and, therefore, contrasts with the Chinese centrality which is increasingly effective. But the global evolution won't erase the rich French heritage, nor the French contribution to the making of Europe; and, more generally, it is precisely in the middle of the most challenging circumstances that the idea of grandeur itself can re-energize the country.

The synergies between centrality and grandeur are more than the affirmation of two separate political identities. They are impulsions for the new humanism of a global renaissance—connections between East and West as much as North and South.

Email us at: yanwei@bjreview.com

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