Vive la Chine!

En honneur du pays où je me trouve actuellement (à Bretagne), j’ai fait un effort de traduire un article…ah whatever, here’s an article from Libération about the recent climax of the ‘France in China’ year. I think the conclusions of the article are quite interesting, in terms of what it says about ‘exchanges culturelles’ between China and the rest of the world.

Apologies in advance for the inevitable mistakes in the translation. Anyone who, unlike me, actually speaks French can read the original article here.

L’Année de la France en Chine, a damp squib

It was supposed to be ‘the incredible adventure’, an event on the scale of the parade down the Champs-Elysées celebrating this year’s Chinese New Year. In the end, after one year of work, €1,500,000 and two hundred special guests flown in from France, it was no more than a simple country fair at the foot of the Great Wall near Beijing, with snacks and white wine for several thousand officials. Somewhere between Chinese authoritarianism and the great follies of the French, the dream had cruelly turned sour.

They’re just peasants!

This, then, marked the end of L’Année de la France en Chine, with a final note of bitterness and an immense sense of waste: Gad Weil, the organiser of the ‘giant picnic’, the idea for which came from the French Government, could not hide his anger on Saturday upon seeing the efforts of his team reduced to almost nothing by the presence of delegations of officials. The initial project, which was to bring together 120,000 people over two days along the length of a wall peopled by representatives of different French provinces promoting their traditional products and traditions, had been rendered more or less unrealisable by the obstacles put in place by the local authorities. The final straw came on Saturday, when the police kept the non-invited public away behind safety barriers, a distinctly colonial scene in which hundreds of Chinese watched at a distance as the French and their important guests enjoyed themselves. When Gad Weil complained, the response was: ‘But they are peasants, they are of no importance to you, they will never go to France!’ ‘I am an acrobat’, explained in vain the organiser of the Chinese New Year parade in Paris, ‘what I do is organise spectacular events for the general public’. His anger was assuaged by the greater access granted to the general public yesterday, but there were very few who turned up owing to the Chinese Mid-Autumn festivities.

L’Année de la France en Chine had begun a year ago with a similar misunderstanding about the ‘popular’ nature of events, with the concert given by Jean-Michel Jarre inside the Forbidden City. The public on that occasion was hand-picked: no spectators without badges, invitations, verification…That concert was among the most expensive events of the year, only available to ordinary Chinese via television. Now, a year later, not much had changed.

Forty million euros

Obviously L’Année de la France en Chine cannot simply be reduced to these two expensive large-scale flops. With over 200 exhibitions, concerts and festivals, there have been many popular successes, such as the travelling Impressionist exhibition or the Transmusicales of Rennes transplanted to Beijing, despite, once again, an overbearing level of security. But the balance cannot be complete without taking into account the financial cost: 40 million euros, a record for a marketing operation. The financing was mixed, involving for the first time private Chinese interests who contributed six million euros, the rest being shared between the State and French companies. ‘Nothing on this scale has been done before’, underlines proudly a French official. A lot has also been wasted on an inumerable number of visits by delegations to China (it’s the fashion), wining and dining, and vague and botched operations.

The rewards of such ‘investment’ are impossible to quantify, and the promoters of the campaign take comfort from the fact that other countries, beginning with Italy, plan to carry out their own ‘exchange years’ following the French model. But this campaign, more diplomatic than cultural, presented initially as an attempt to modernise the image of France, which is traditionally seen as ‘romantic’ in the eyes of the Chinese, will not serve for much more than confirming that the French are friendly and rich…culturally. It will be difficult to break down those barriers.

The lesson

The Chinese are happy to welcome such initiatives: they reap the benefits of this courting by Western countries in search of market share. And they do it on their terms. Intractable on Saturday with regard to the Wall, they were very generous with the Summer Palace, where, on the occasion of a reception given by the city of Beijing to France, the magnificant site, long ago pillaged and destroyed by the French army in 1860, was superbly decorated in the colours of France. But no question of it being a popular fête: the invitees were all wearing badges. In China, cultural exchanges are something too important to be left to the people. France has learnt that lesson at it’s own expense.

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