DON’T be surprised if you have recently seen a group of young foreigners walking through the alleyways of Shanghai, tasting local snacks and talking with the elderly at their shikumen (stone gate) houses — some speak perfect Chinese.
There will be more of them in the future as plans are underway to bring more elite foreign youths, who are seeking professional development with their Chinese counterparts and are interested in industry and a broader view of core Chinese values and culture.
Initiated by the Wu Jianmin Foundation, a public-interest organization established in memory of the late Chinese diplomat Wu Jianmin (1939-2016) in March in Beijing, the first batch of 10 exceptional youths visiting China are from France. They are co-sponsored by the Foundation of Prospective and Innovation chaired by former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
“I applied immediately when one of my Chinese colleagues told me there was such a fellowship,” says Alexis Rodier, a PhD holder in politics and project assistant to Raffarin. “I see it a good opportunity to get to know China, not only from what the Chinese or others say they are, but also from my own eyes and experiences.”
First timer in China, the 25-year-old Parisian says the 10-day tour was like “a journey of discovery” for him.
“I am amazed at the social and economic development in China. From Beijing to Yinchuan (Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region) and from Shanghai to Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province), I can feel a strong sense of national identity everywhere I go,” says Rodier, who looks forward to more opportunities for his foundation to do business in China.
“Chinese people are very proud of their history and culture, which promotes respect as well as togetherness.”
Fleur Chabaille-Wang stands out among the rest, not only because she shares a Chinese surname, but also her readiness to take notes and absorb the information. Married to a Chinese man from Tianjin, Chabaille finished her PhD in Chinese history at the Tianjin Foreign Studies University in 2012-13.
With a good command of Chinese, she now teaches at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris. However, Chabaille applied for the fellowship with a concrete project in mind for her future in China.
“Actually, we are planning to move back to China in September. I want to set up a training center which offers tailored courses for Chinese students who want to study in France,” she explains.
“Through my studies in China, I find Chinese people use a different methodology in research for their papers. Therefore, it is better to have them prepared before they flounder in confusion at the French schools,” says Chabaille, who turns 30 next year — a good age to start one’s own business according to Chinese tradition.
Though Chabaille has been to China several times, she says her participation in the program affords her an unparalleled opportunity to talk face-to-face with the deans of China’s elite universities and learn how experts and leaders deal with problems when starting a new business.
“I know it’s not going to be easy, but I will think of Ma Yun and how he founded the Alibaba Group — Asia’s largest online trading platform — when I face a challenge,” she says.
While Chabaille’s project is to bring Chinese people to France, Kimberley Le Pape thinks the other way round. A graduate student in international security at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, the 22-year-old is the youngest of the 10-member young leaders’ delegation.
“I come from Normandy, a small region northwest of France. People in my hometown may have heard about China’s economic miracles, but they know nothing of Chinese culture, food, music, or movies for example,” says Le Pape whose current research interest lies in special educational services in Asia.
Her idea is to set up a sister-school program between French elementary schools and Chinese ones so that “every July and August during the summer holiday break, we can bring in French college volunteers who want to teach children French in China, and I see Yinchuan a nice place to start with,” she adds.
Last week, Feng Wei, secretary of the Wu Jianmin Foundation, flew into Shanghai to meet with the French delegates at the Shanghai Theater Academy on a closing forum of exchange between local students, government officials, startup entrepreneurs and social workers.
“I have to say that this group of young leaders have outperformed our expectations in terms of their academic skills, enterprise insights and cross-culture experiences,” Feng says. “Most of them came with their own projects or have a clear plan of career development in China, which is very impressive.”
According to Feng, the Wu Jianmin International Youth Exchange Program will be a long-term project which brings two batches of international young leaders to China every year, thanks to a web of friends from around the globe who share Wu’s thoughts and views on peace and development.
The next young leaders’ delegation from the United States is set to arrive in December.
“Through our programs, young people from around the world learn about China’s Belt and Road Initiative, current social affairs, and peace-building policies, with an aim to carry forward Wu Jianmin’s effort in promoting the friendly understanding between the Chinese people and the world,” Feng says.
ABOUT Wu Jianmin
BORN in 1939 in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province, Wu was one of China’s most prominent diplomats since the 1950s. He had worked as an interpreter for former Chinese leaders such as Chairman Mao Zedong, Premier Zhou Enlai and Marshall Chen Yi. He worked in many posts, such as Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, ambassador to the Netherlands, Geneva and France. In 2003, he was appointed president of the China Foreign Affairs University and served for five years. On July 18, 2016, Wu died in a fatal car accident in Wuhan, Hubei Province. He was on his way to give a lecture at Wuhan University.