Russian medical students learn Chinese massage therapy at a hospital in Lanzhou, capital of northwest China's Gansu Province, on May 12, 2017 (XINHUA)
During his world exploration voyages in the 14th century, China's Admiral Zheng He led fleets of thousands of ships and tens of thousands of people to the Red Sea, establishing cultural exchanges between China and countries along the route, including Saudi Arabia.
Centuries later, a joint China-Saudi Arabia archaeological exploration team from the National Cultural Heritage Administration and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) followed Zheng's footsteps to the Al-Serrian site in Saudi Arabia's Al-Qunfudah to carry out archaeological work to find imprints of ancient maritime trade.
"The Belt and Road Initiative enables such archaeological cooperation projects to bring together the peoples from our two countries, which both have long civilizations and rich cultures," Dr. Abdullah Al-Zahrani, General Director of the Archaeological Research Studies at SCTH and a team leader of the China-Saudi Arabia archaeological crew, told Beijing Review during the Thematic Forum on People-to-People Connectivity of the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) held in Beijing on April 25. He noted that he hopes to look for more opportunities for archaeological cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia during his trip to Beijing.
According to Al-Zahrani, under the joint program, Saudi Arabian researchers came to China and exchanged archaeological techniques. Along with promoting historical research, such joint archaeological work also enables the two peoples to gain a better understanding of each other.
In 2016, the Roads of Arabia expo came to the National Museum of China in Beijing, showcasing more than 300 Saudi Arabian antiques, while two years later, the China Treasures exhibition was held at the Riyadh National Museum. The over 250 items on display helped Saudi Arabians to learn about Chinese history and culture.
Promoting people-to-people bonds is one of the focuses of the Belt and Road Initiative. Marked results can be seen since the initiative was proposed in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping. To promote cultural exchanges among Belt and Road participating countries, international alliances and leagues have been established covering museums of the Silk Road, theaters, art festivals, libraries, and art museums and galleries.
According to the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, an affiliation to the Ministry of Commerce, by the end of 2017, China had signed cultural cooperation agreements with 157 countries and nearly 800 action plans on cultural exchanges in total. Thus a cultural exchange and cooperation network covering major countries and regions has taken shape.
Cultural tourism cooperation between China and other countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative presents a diversified and brand-building trend. Tourism Year events have been carried out between China and countries like Kazakhstan, Nepal and Laos; in addition, a series of dialogues and activities have been held, including the World Conference on the Development of Tourism, the Tourism Ministerial Meeting of Countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt, the Silk Road International Culture Forum and Belt and Road sessions at international film festivals, among others.
Nearly 30 Chinese international cultural and tourism brands have been established, including Happy Spring Festival, Travel to the Silk Road, the Visiting Program for Young Sinologists, Chinese Culture Talk, Travel to the Grand Canal, Travel to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (Sky Way) and the Arabic Arts Festival. In 2018, Happy Spring Festival was held in 53 Belt and Road participating countries.
Moreover, a number of measures have been introduced to facilitate personnel flow. In November 2017, China's State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Public Security jointly issued the Measures for the Implementation of the Foreign Talent Visa System to further increase the scope and duration of talent visas.
Since January 1, five Chinese cities, namely Xiamen, Qingdao, Chengdu, Kunming and Wuhan, have adopted a 144-hour visa-free transit policy for foreigners, which allows air passengers who have an onward ticket with a confirmed seat and date to a third country or region from 53 qualified countries, including Russia, the U.S., the UK, France and Germany, to transit and stay for up to 144 hours without a visa.
In terms of outbound travel, Chinese citizens can now visit over 70 countries and regions without a visa or by obtaining a visa upon arrival. China has established a full reciprocal visa-free policy with 14 countries including the UAE, Serbia, Belarus, Qatar and Bosnia and Herzegovina, while 15 countries and regions provide Chinese citizens with the privilege of visa-free entry and 44 offer visas on arrival. China has also concluded 71 agreements (or made arrangements) to simplify visa procedures with 42 countries.
In 2018, a total of 149.72 million outbound trips were made by Chinese tourists, while foreign travelers made 30.54 million trips to China, according to statistics from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
The number of people involved in two-way tourism exchange between China and other Belt and Road participants is expected to exceed 85 million, as tourism reaches about $110 billion by 2020, according to a green book on tourism released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in January.
"Tourism can connect people's values in different countries," said Laura Chavarro, Senior Manager of American Continent, World Tourism Cities Federation. The federation has organized meetings and other activities to promote tourism and tourism-related business between China and Latin America. She said she believes that tourism between China and Latin America will increase with the further development of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Students from the Italian International School visit an exhibition of picture books created by Chinese children during the 55th Bologna Children's Book Fair in Italy on March 28, 2018 (XINHUA)
Educational cooperation is another major part of cultural exchanges under the initiative. The Chinese Government has provided scholarships for around 10,000 students from countries along the Belt and Road each year. By November 2018, it had established cultural exchange mechanisms with Russia, the U.S., France, the UK, the European Union, Indonesia, South Africa and Germany; set up educational cooperation and exchange relationships with 188 countries and regions; and conducted educational cooperation and exchange with 46 major international organizations, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
Learning Chinese and studying in China have gained popularity among young people who are influenced by "Chinese language fever" aroused by the initiative. Vice Minister of Education Tian Xuejun noted during the Second BRF that China has established 154 Confucius Institutes and 149 Confucius Classrooms in 54 Belt and Road participating countries.
Tian said in the future, intergovernmental educational cooperation will be upgraded and exchanges will be deepened, so as to cultivate more professionals to facilitate Belt and Road construction.
Pan Xiangbin is a cardiologist at Fu Wai Hospital and an active participant in medical exchanges and assistance programs under the Belt and Road Initiative. In November 2018, during a business trip to Uzbekistan, Pan operated on a local pregnant woman who was suffering from heart failure symptoms, using an advanced percutaneous intervention therapy developed by his team and ultimately saving her life. In March, he heard the good news that the woman had successfully given birth to a healthy baby.
"The Belt and Road Initiative has played an important role in connecting people's hearts in terms of medical and health work," Pan told Beijing Review, adding that he is willing to share what his team has achieved in the medical field with countries that need assistance.
Cooperation on public health has delivered broad benefits to people. From the prevention and control of contagious diseases and health assistance to talent cultivation and promotion of traditional Chinese medicine, China has made consistent efforts to deepen cooperation in the health field with other Belt and Road participants.
The Chinese Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Health Sector Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative with the World Health Organization, while the Brightness Action medical assistance project has benefited a number of cataract patients in Africa and Asia.
In addition, China has cooperated with Central and Eastern European countries in such areas as the prevention and control of contagious and chronic diseases and vaccinations; worked with Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar, Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand to launch a joint control program on resistance to anti-malarial drugs; and furthered cooperation with Central Asian countries on the control of tuberculosis.
Pan said that besides treating patients, doctors like him also help train colleagues in Belt and Road participating countries and introduce them to advanced medical techniques and technologies. "In this way, more people can regain health," he said.