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Ministers Say
Cultural Exchanges: A Crucial Bond of Friendship
 ChinAfrica December 2015

 
At the opening ceremony of the Year of China in South Africa in Pretoria on March 15, South Africa's Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa and I read out congratulatory messages from President Jacob Zuma and President Xi Jinping respectively. President Xi said in his message, I believe that the Year of China in South Africa will open a new chapter of people-to-people and cultural exchanges between China and South Africa.

This successful event is about to conclude with The Moment of China and Africa: Gala Evening in Celebration of the Closing of the 2015 Year of China in South Africa. President Xi and heads of state and government of African countries will meet in Johannesburg, South Africa, where they will discuss strategies for the development of China-Africa relations and chart a new course for all-round cooperation.

The wide-ranging and colorful cultural activities during the year-long Year of China in South Africa fulfilled Xi's hopes to deepen China-South Africa people-to-people exchanges and represented a major step forward for mutual cultural learning. The exchanges between China and South Africa are a microcosm of China's cultural relations with African countries. Looking back at China-Africa cultural cooperation since the inception of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) 15 years ago, I am pleased to note that the exchanges have exhibited hallmarks such as the involvement of diverse participants, various forms of cooperation, high brand recognition, and popularity among the public owing to the joint efforts of China and Africa. They have made important contributions to promoting the all-round, balanced and sustainable development of the new type of China-Africa strategic partnership as well as intercultural dialogue on an equal footing, and safeguarding world cultural diversity.

First, China-Africa cultural exchanges have transformed from a mere government initiative to a new pattern characterized by the government's leading role and the participation of all sectors of society. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, China and Africa carried out fruitful intergovernmental cultural exchanges and cooperation as leaders of both sides valued such exchanges and offered their guidance. Given various restraints, the development of China-Africa cultural ties, however, excessively relied on their governments' attention, devotion and promotion. Since the advent of the new century, especially since the FOCAC Beijing Summit in 2006, participants in China-Africa cultural programs have become increasingly diverse under the leadership and promotion of the governments.

As far as the cultural authorities are concerned, China's Ministry of Culture hosted the Symposium on China-Africa Cultural Exchange in the New Century in Beijing in 2000. Since then dialogue has increased, featuring more in-depth discussions. The ministry launched the African Cultural Visitors Program in 2006. From 2007 to 2009, it held three cultural policy roundtables within the framework of the program, sharing experiences in cultural affairs administration and international cultural exchanges with almost all African countries. Cultural ministers or their representatives from 45 African countries attended the FOCAC Cultural Ministers' Forum in Beijing in June 2012, adopting the Beijing Statement and laying out plans for the development of China-Africa cultural relations.

At a local level, Chinese provinces and municipalities have extensively participated in China-Africa cultural exchanges in cooperation with the ministry. Since 2012, 14 provinces and municipalities have conducted exchanges with 26 African countries in a planned manner, completing nearly 100 cultural programs. These included sending more than 40 art troupes to perform in Africa and welcoming 26 troupes from 20 African countries to China. These programs have promoted understanding and friendship between Chinese and African people.

The Ministry of Culture has been encouraging and supporting the direct participation of cultural organizations in China-Africa exchanges with the launch of the China-Africa Cultural Cooperation Partnership Program in 2012. Between 2013 and 2015, Chinese and African cultural organizations working in fields such as performances, exhibitions, personnel training, cultural heritage protection and intangible cultural heritage preservation signed 70 agreements and realized direct cooperation under the program.

In addition, international arts festivals, social organizations and cultural companies have been part of China-Africa cultural exchanges and cooperation. For instance, a large number of African art troupes were invited to events in China such as the Meet in Beijing Arts Festival, the Shanghai International Arts Festival and the Xinjiang International Folk Dance Festival. The Window of the World, a theme park in Shenzhen in south China, has launched an African cultural festival. Many hotels and tourist destinations are hiring African actors and actresses on a long-term basis for in-house performances.

Cultural centers reciprocally established in China and Africa have long engaged in activities such as dialogue between minds, national condition familiarization and cultural exchanges and have become a window through which to learn about each other's cultures. The first Chinese cultural centers launched overseas were in Africa. To date, China has set up five cultural centers in Africa and plans to inaugurate two new ones in Africa each year in the coming three years.

Second, China-Africa cultural exchanges have been innovated and expanded to create a new pattern characterized by a wide range of forms. These include major events such as the Year of South Africa in China, the Year of China in South Africa, and Africa Guest of Honor in the Meet in Beijing Arts Festival; cooperation between Chinese cultural organizations and their African counterparts; face-to-face communication between cultural professionals; and cultural personnel training. For a long time, three conventional programs dominated cultural exchanges between China and African countries: mutual visits by state cultural delegations and performing troupes and reciprocal exhibitions.  These exchanges have begun to diversify since the beginning of the new century with the involvement of various participants.

In 2004, the Ministry of Culture sponsored the Africa Guest of Honor program in the Meet in Beijing Arts Festival and the Voyage of Chinese Culture to Africa, pioneering large-scale China-Africa cultural events. Two years later, the ministry staged Ode to Friendship: Gala Evening of the FOCAC Beijing Summit, which was attended by Chinese and African heads of state. It organized the African Night show in 2008 as one of the major cultural events in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. During the Year of South Africa in China in 2014 and the Year of China in South Africa in 2015, the Ministry of Culture and South Africa's Department of Arts and Culture co-organized a series of events. It was the first time China co-hosted major year-long cultural programs with an African country. They are poised to set an example for and spearhead future initiatives.

China has signed intergovernmental cultural cooperation agreements with all African countries it has diplomatic relations with. Since 2000, Chinese and African cultural authorities have signed and implemented or are currently implementing 86 annual plans. The Ministry of Culture has dispatched 19 governmental cultural delegations to more than 40 African countries and welcomed 60 African governmental cultural delegations to China within the frameworks of implementation plans of cultural agreements and FOCAC action plans. Preliminary statistics show 155 Chinese art troupes have performed in Africa and Chinese institutions have hosted 210 African art troupes performing in China. China has sent 45 art exhibitions to Africa and invited 19 African art exhibitions to China. Chinese cultural and artistic experts have paid 73 visits to Africa, while their African counterparts have paid 49 visits to China. China has provided nearly 500 regular or short-term training opportunities to African cultural and artistic personnel.

Third, China-Africa cultural exchange brands have emerged, with programs such as Chinese and African Cultures in Focus and China-Africa mutual visits between cultural personnel gaining increasing recognition. Since 2006, the Ministry of Culture has initiated several flagship programs in keeping with agreements reached at the FOCAC Beijing Summit. Thanks to promotion over the years, these programs have won appreciation and support in China and Africa.

Cultures in Focus, with uniform planning, a uniform logo and unified publicity, has integrated annual China-Africa cultural exchanges and cooperation programs. Since 2008, African Culture in Focus events are held in China in even-number years to promote African culture and art, while Chinese Culture in Focus events are held in Africa in odd-number years to showcase Chinese culture and art. More than 200 events covering 20-plus African countries are held each year.

The program of mutual visits by cultural personnel provides a platform for direct communication between Chinese and African cultural and artistic communities. In recent years, cultural policy roundtables, cultural industry roundtables and cultural heritage protection forums have all been held consecutively under this program, involving almost all African countries. The Artists-in-Residence Creation Project has been expanded to a reciprocal program under which Chinese painters are sent to Africa and African painters are invited to China. A number of exhibitions of their paintings have been held under the title As Others See Us.

The China-Africa Cultural Cooperation Partnership Program is a platform for Chinese cultural organizations, art troupes and cultural companies to communicate with their African peers. Since its inception, nearly 70 organizations on each side have forged long-term cooperative ties with their counterparts.

At this moment of reflection, with the Johannesburg Summit just around the corner, I feel proud of the achievements in cultural exchanges and cooperation between China and Africa. As minister of culture, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all those who have dedicated themselves to this cause. Looking ahead, I believe the first FOCAC summit on the African continent will help upgrade China-Africa relations across the board. At this critical juncture where we should build upon past achievements to make new progress, I look forward to working together with the cultural authorities of African countries to implement the agreements of the Johannesburg Summit, carry out culture-related measures in the new action plan, and promote China-Africa cultural exchanges and mutual learning to a deeper level with a broader scope.

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