Lucie Gil, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.
Presidents Xi Jinping and Jacob Zuma met in Pretoria on March 26, 2013. The deepening of cultural exchange and mutual understanding formed part of the discussions on a new strategic partnership between China and South Africa
It is now commonplace to hear about the surge of Chinese economic activities and investments in the African continent, and to view these developments with either a great deal of hope or suspicion. We tend to forget, however, that exchanges in art, culture and education have also been thought of as a key component of China’s foreign policy. Official cultural relations were launched in May 1955 when the new People’s Republic of China signed its first cultural agreement with an African country, the Arab Republic of Egypt. This was the starting point of a movement largely pursued in the 1960’s and 1970’s as many African countries were struggling for their independence.
One by one, the African countries that had established diplomatic relations with China adopted strategies of Cultural Diplomacy, establishing bilateral government agreements on cultural cooperation. Powerful tools of Chinese cultural diplomacy were introduced across the African continent, ranging from Confucius institutes to Chinese cultural centers and gardens. The Republic of Mauritius and the Republic of Benin were the first to welcome a Chinese cultural center in their country. The Beijing Summit of Forum on China-Africa Cooperation that took place in 2006 was a significant development as a new type of partnership was created, raising cultural exchange to the same level as political and economic cooperation.
Finally, it is interesting to note that the last cultural agreement was signed in 2000 between Sun Jiazheng, PRC’s Minister of Culture, and Dr BS Nqubane, South Africa’s Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. This is quite a relevant rapprochement if one remembers that China and South Africa have both become part of the BRICS club since then. South Africa recently held the fifth BRICS summit, in March 2013, where the creation of a development bank was discussed. The role of cultural diplomacy in that regard will probably be important because though the five member countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) can be considered as similar on the economic level, their cultural inheritance, traditions and customs show great diversity.
Image source here