Past Points to Future 

China, France should introspect and recast the way they see each other 

Past Points to Future

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Francois Hollande meet with journalists in Beijing on April 25, 2013. Xu Jingxing / China Daily

When you step into the building of the old office of the late French president Charles de Gaulle in Paris, you immediately realize how connected he was with China.

On the wall of the hallway hangs a giant picture of a Chinese boy wearing an earphone and listening attentively to the audio guide at the exhibition on the life of the former French president held in Beijing 10 years ago when the two countries commemorated De Gaulle's momentous decision to recognize the new Chinese government in 1964.

Today the office is the headquarters of the Charles de Gaulle Foundation, which will send a 200-strong French delegation including current and former politicians, offspring of the de Gaulle family, business people and intellectuals to Beijing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sino-French diplomatic relations.

Anticipation is also high for Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to France in March, which is expected to emphasize the historic importance of Sino-French ties and to signal the desire to deepen the partnership between Beijing and Paris.

Although countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland established diplomatic ties with Beijing in the 1950s soon after the founding of the People's Republic of China, France was the first major Western power to forge relations with Beijing at the ambassadorial level.

To many Chinese, Paris' recognition of Beijing on Jan 27, 1964, was a historic breakthrough in China's diplomacy that helped reshape the bipolar world order imposed by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Now, both sides hope they can seize the opportunity to expand their half-century old relationship and discover the new reality of each other in a much more complex world.

While the balance of global power has shifted over the past few decades, the spirit of de Gaulle is still important as China and France look at the need to deepen their special partnership, which remains strong, diplomats and experts say.

Past Points to Future

Chinese ambassador to France Zhai Jun with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in front of a painting of former French president Charles de Gaulle, by Chinese artist Fan Zeng, at a news conference in Paris on Jan 13 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the China-France relationship. Li Xiang / China Daily

"The bilateral relationship is good but its potential is far from fully exploited," says Alice Ekman, China analyst at the French Institute of International Relations.

Bridging the gap between small and medium-sized enterprises of China and France is one of the key ways in which the vast potential can be unleashed, analysts say.

Analysts say that China's major economic reforms and institutional shake-up will also create new opportunities for Sino-French cooperation.

Ekman of the French Institute of International Relations says: "This certainly represents an opportunity for bilateral relations as France has expertise in areas that are key for China's current development in sectors including urbanization, healthcare, energy and others."

But China's fast social and economic transformation will also pose a challenge for relations as the country adjusts. "Understanding the new institutional and policy framework (being established) in China is a difficult task," she says.

Another major challenge for Sino-French relations is coordinating bilateral relations with China at a European level, analysts say.

"While the EU-China strategic partnership exists, individual EU member states still have very different approaches and strategies toward China at the moment," Ekman says.

Trade and investment tensions such as the disputes over solar panels and wine exports remain between China and the European Union that may complicate the Sino-French business prospect, she says.

The development of Sino-French relations has not always been smooth over the past 50 years. In 2008 they took a turn for the worse after then French president Nicolas Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama and the Beijing Olympic torch relay was disrupted in Paris.

"France and China need to make sure they share the same world vision and are thinking in the same way for the strategy of a multipolar world," Former French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said. [Full story]


Past Points to Future

October 1963

Edgar Darfur, the special envoy of the French president Charles de Gaulle, visits China to establish diplomatic ties. Chinese premier Zhou Enlai meets Darfur in Beijing.

Past Points to Future

May 1975

French prime minister Jacques Chirac welcomes Deng Xiaoping in Paris on May 12. It was the first visit by a Chinese leader to France since 1964.

Past Points to Future

January 2004

Chinese president Hu Jintao pays a state visit to France, during which the two heads of state sign a joint statement, lifting the China-France partnership to an all-round strategic partnership.[Photo/Foreign Ministry of PRC]

Past Points to Future

Jan 27, 1964

China and France issue a joint communique, announcing the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. [Photo/Foreign Ministry of PRC]

Past Points to Future

May 1983

French president Francis Mitterrand pays an official visit to China. The two countries sign a memorandum of understanding on nuclear energy coopeartion. [Photo/Foreign Ministry of PRC]

Past Points to Future

November 2007

French president Nicolas Sarkozy pays a state visit to China during which the two heads of state reach common understanding on further developing the China-France strategic partnership.[Photo/Foreign Ministry of PRC]

Past Points to Future

June 6, 1964

The first Chinese ambassador to France, Huang Zhen, meets French president Charles de Gaulle (center) and foreign minister Maurice Couve de Murville to present his credentials at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Past Points to Future

September 1994

Chinese president Jiang Zemin visits France. [Photo/Foreign Ministry of PRC]

Past Points to Future

April 2013

During French President Francois Hollande's visit to China, the two countries decide to explore new areas of cooperation and sign 18 agreements and business deals.[Photo/Foreign Ministry of PRC]

Past Points to Future

September 1973

Georges Pompidou becomes the first French president and the first head of state of a European country to pay an official visit to China.[Photo/Foreign Ministry of PRC]

Past Points to Future

May 1997

During a state visit to China, French president Jacques Chirac and Chinese president Jiang Zemin sign a joint statement announcing a comprehensive partnership between the two countries. Chirac (center) and Jiang toast after the signing of the $1.5-billion Airbus order in Beijing on May 15.[Photo/Foreign Ministry of PRC]

Past Points to Future

December 2013

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang meets French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in Beijing. They agree to expand nuclear energy cooperation.


 Golden memories of a great man

View:Grandeur and Centrality

Momentous diplomatic breakthrough and what came next

Past Points to Future

Bernard de Gaulle believes France and China will have more successful relations in the future. Li Xiang / China Daily









With a long and narrow face, a high nose and imposing stature, Bernard de Gaulle is as easily recognizable as his last name.

At the age of 91 he bears a strong resemblance to his uncle Charles de Gaulle, the late French president, whose decision to recognize Beijing's new government 50 years ago turned a new page in China-France relations and made De Gaulle a household name in China.

One of the most memorable events of his career was his trip to Beijing in 1964 making him a pioneer of Sino-French commercial relations.

"I never follow ideological confrontation," he says softly but firmly. "And I've always felt that China is important."

In fact, the idea for the exhibition was first raised in 1953 when Bernard met Chinese officials of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade in East Berlin. The decision was finalized in 1963, one year before the official normalization of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Paris, he says.

Because of the exhibition, he managed to visit China in the 1960s and made the trip that his uncle had always wished to make but that never materialized.

Bernard clearly recalls the difficulties of putting on the exhibition in China, a country that was completely unknown to him, but the exhibition was a success, and he was later invited to a lunch banquet and says he had a three-hour conversation with Chairman Mao Zedong in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.

"A lot of French people do not understand what China really is," he says. "It is the same for the Chinese as many heads of business corporations don't have much idea about France."

Bernard's advice to current political leaders of China and France, in addition to improving mutual understanding, is patience.

More than half a century later, Bernard still recalls the words his uncle wrote to him in a letter in 1954. "He wrote: 'Bernard, I follow your career in industry. You are in China. Despite the war, please continue and do not compromise yourself.'"

Looking at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Sino-French diplomatic relations, Bernard expresses optimism. "I am confident that our two countries will arrive at more successful relations in the coming years." [Full story]

France and China, which are celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations, have long had a clear view of their identities

A statement is repeatedly attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that he probably never uttered and that has become an inept cliche: "When China awakes, the world will shake."

At a news conference on Sept 9, 1965, the French president Charles 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 it in a position to have a leading global role."

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, de Gaulle's politics of grandeur caused uneasiness or consternation.Past Points to Future

In entirely reducing de Gaulle's decision to politics one is missing a fundamental component of Gaullism. When he acknowledged China as a civilization, de Gaulle transcended the usual geopolitical calculations and took into account a more essential reality. For him the French administration had to work with another foreign government but, more fundamentally, he wanted the old French nation to connect with the immemorial Chinese civilization.

De Gaulle thought and acted under the light of "la grandeur", a notion that is at the heart of France's national character. The imperatives of "liberte, egalite and fraternite", 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 French grandeur. If a sense of grandeur inspired the French monarchs, emperors and presidents, the Middle Kingdom envisioned for itself centrality under heaven. Versailles and the Forbidden City, Place de La Concorde and Tian'anmen Square are obvious architectural illustrations of the correspondence between the la Grande Nation and the Middle Kingdom.

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

Ironically, the gap between France's representation of itself and the weight of its power is widening and, contrasts with the Chinese centrality that is increasingly effective. Nevertheless, global evolution will not erase France's rich contribution to the making of Europe. More generally, it is precisely in the midst of the most challenging circumstances that the idea of grandeur itself can re-energize the country.

The synergies between grandeur and centrality 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, and they are concrete universalism. [Full story]

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