Narratives for Europe: Reading Room - Jian Shi and Yan Zhuang

Youth mobility: the living bridge between Europe and China

In the 21st century the world is changing in a dramatic way. Rapid economic and social development is accelerating the process of globalisation and promoting wider-ranging cross-cultural dialogues. The roles played by different global actors are changing. In addition, new forms of activities and powers are emerging in the discourse of international relations. In the post-modern world, when discussing the promotion of relations between the European Union (EU) and China, and the global players’ roles in international forums, we should not ignore ‘soft power’, nor should we neglect people’s roles (both individual and collective) in intercultural dialogue. If we analyse the future of these areas further, it will be necessary for us to pay more attention to the youngsters of today, especially their remarks and feedback on their educational experience and personal development in a multicultural environment. The young people of today will be the main force for the world-making projects of tomorrow, so their knowledge and perception of global issues and other cultures will strongly affect their behaviour and decisions in the future.

In this context, we designed an interesting experiment to find out about Chinese college students’ perceptions and reflections on Europe. These Chinese students are studying various majors at a range of universities and were randomly chosen to answer the same question: ‘What does Europe look like through your eyes?’ The students’ answers were highly varied. They know geographically that Europe is on the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia and the planet’s second smallest continent by surface area, with a much smaller population than that of China.

For Chinese students, the image of European countries has changed over the years. When Chinese people mentioned ‘Europe’ in the mid-20th century, it mainly referred to countries in central Europe, not to today’s EU member states. Since the 1990s, following the further promotion of the ‘Reform and Opening’ policy in China, more and more European cosmetics, cars and fashion brands have been introduced into the Chinese market to enrich the daily life of ordinary people. This has given young people an impression of wealthy European countries and their high-quality products. From a cultural perspective, Chinese students have regarded ‘Europe’ as the cultural ‘other’ with exotic flavours, related to the Greco-Roman culture and Judeo-Christian traditions, the intellectual thought and philosophy of the Enlightenment, the expansion of capitalism, two world wars and so on.

In recent years, the EU has become increasingly concerned about the Chinese media. Meanwhile, more opportunities have been created for young people to participate in the EU-China cooperative funding programmes and activities, even though the European financial crisis has often been discussed in news reports. In the discourse on international relations, the EU has been China’s comprehensive strategic partner and China-EU relations are among the most important in Chinese foreign policy.[1]

Although the above-mentioned points and perspectives seem to vary from one discipline to another, each opinion or perception represents one of the many facets of Chinese young people’s views of Europe. Collecting these perceptions together would be like mosaic-imaging Europe. However, when we askedstudents how they formed these impressions of Europe, we found that most of these ideas were from second-hand sources, mainly shaped by media, books, films or official documents published online. 

The editors of these materials view one story from different angles, drawing attention to particular aspects and then disseminating those opinions publicly. We therefore soon realised that two questions emerge:

1)  How can we help Chinese students to formulate their personal reflections on Europe?

2)  What does Europe really look like through young students’ eyes and experiences?

If the young generation cannot formulate their own opinions and understanding of today’s Europe, there is a risk that they will misunderstand something or be misled. If this were to happen, then it could interfere with EU-China relations in the future.

Promoting intercultural understanding

As a promoter of Erasmus Mundus Actions and a Professor of Cultural Studies and International Relations, I have fortunately witnessed and participated in the EU-China educational cooperation and intercultural dialogue for many years. My job involves interesting meetings with young people from all over the world. I will therefore use the Erasmus Mundus Actions to illustrate the contributions, as well as the potential, of bilateral and/or multilateral programmes and activities in EU-China cooperation, especially in the fields of culture and education. I will also use this as an example to elaborate on the implications and impact of ‘soft’ means of external actions in transforming and constructing Europe’s new global role.

This reminds me of some interesting reflections that many young scholars and students shared with me about their overseas experiences in Europe. Before their journeys, their knowledge and perceptions of Europe and European people were mainly from the classroom, libraries, websites, TV programmes and so on. Some of these young scholars have written insightful papers on European culture and have been studying European integration for years, but they have never been ‘exposed’ to the EU in the flesh. Through their mobility at European universities, their conversations and communication with EU citizens and European scholars, they rapidly updated their understanding of European cultures and traditions, as well as of EU policies and actions. Their voices have been heard and their ideas have been shared with European people against this multicultural background. Of course there are stereotypes, prejudices and biases among young people from different cultural backgrounds or nationalities. One of the objectives of this cooperation and mobility programme in higher education is to promote intercultural understanding. If there had been no problems whatsoever in their intercultural dialogues then the programme would somehow have been of less value.

Among the young students, culture then becomes a platform that expands its own value in international relations as the resource of an international player’s soft power. People-to-people dialogues become daily practices and attract students to share their opinions with each other, to explore their common interests, and to enhance their mutual understanding in the cross-cultural environment. As Walter Rüegg once mentioned, no other European institution has spread over the entire world as comprehensively as the traditional form of the European university.[2] In this context, the Erasmus Mundus Actions enable young people to move one step closer to the world-renowned academies in a dynamic and multinational environment, which not only presents them with opportunities to participate in academic activities in various disciplines and fields, but also provides them with a broader space for international collaboration and engagement.

The multicultural, multidisciplinary and multilingual environment thus becomes the epitome of a global village, providing both the overseas students and the local people with new perspectives on each other. Once they have adapted, this promotes four personal strengths: career prospects, development skills, personal and social development, and cultural imprint. They learn from and live with each other every day; more than 86 per cent of Erasmus Mundus students agree that they have made a lot of friends with whom they will probably stay in touch following their international studies. Their salaries after the Erasmus Mundus Master Course programme (EMMC) show an increase and tend to rise with the years after graduation.[3] The most important aspect is not what they have learned directly but how they work through the problems, which will continue to reap long-term rewards for their future career. The process of adapting to the new situation and the effort to eradicate any bias adds value to their overseas experiences, which develop their personality and give them valuable insights into other cultures. This experience also provides these students with better skills for international cooperation in life and the academic world, helping them to get one step ahead of other young people to participate in intercultural exchange and the process of world-making.

Soft power: winning over hearts and minds

As Joseph Nye has noted, in the Information Age winning hearts and minds is more important than bare ‘hand-to-hand combat’ with the fierce international competition. To attract is more effective than to conquer directly, and soft power (or soft means of external action) belongs to this sort of attractive power. When a country’s policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, its soft power is enhanced. The appeal of a country or an organisation depends on the context in which the mutual relations exist. As Nye wrote, narrow values and parochial cultures are less likely to produce soft power; only a sort of universalistic culture could be reasonably accepted by the people coming from the outside. The values (e.g. democracy, human rights, openness and respect for the opinions of others) that a government champions in its behaviour at home strongly affect the preferences of others.[4] Cultural attraction is, to a large extent, achieved by way of personal contacts, visits and exchanges. During the process of education and academic mobility, the local attraction could be spread and accepted naturally through daily routines, cultural products, traditions, and even the way of doing business.

The EU is a key player in the international issues of the 21st century. The policy development of the European Commission (EC) and the fruits of EU funding programmes are held in high esteem around the world. Article 167 (ex Article 151) of the Treaty requires the EU and its member states to foster cooperation with partner countries and the relevant international organisations in the sphere of culture, and the European Agenda for Culture provides strategic guidelines for EU policy development that includes external relations. Culture boosts innovation and culture is an increasingly vital factor in building a world order based on peaceful coexistence and sustainable development. In the 21st century world view, the EU is establishing ever-closer relationships with emerging countries, including China, India and Brazil.

As a developing country, China has benefited from its open-door strategy for more than 30 years, and its new image and influence in the world are both changing in line with its openness. Official EU-China cultural relations date back to 2003, with a Declaration on cultural cooperation between the EC and the Chinese Ministry of Culture. The importance of the cultural dimension of EU-China relations was reaffirmed at the 12th EU-China Summit in November 2009 in Nanjing, with the establishment of the EU-China High Level Culture Forum. At the 14th EU-China Summit in Beijing in 2012, EU and Chinese leaders decided to establish a third pillar of EU-China strategic partnership dedicated to ‘people-to-people’ exchanges, which contributes to the knowledge and common understanding between China and the EU through the enhancement of contacts between people and civil society partners.

A culture that is active and alive is always open-minded. The interaction with others is a means of gaining a clearer reflection of oneself, of one’s own culture and identity. The images and understanding of other cultures are always constructed by living cultures in communication and exchange. Engaging with each other in intercultural activities and dialogue will then help to construct positive images and mutual impressions. The intercultural mobility of young people reinforces this and will continue to promote mutual understanding, which also avoids the perpetuation of biased views of one another.

People-to-people power

From the feedback of a number of surveys among Chinese and European university students, the younger generations on both sides obviously need more knowledge and understanding of each other. For most of them, their reflections on and perceptions of other cultures are not gained from their first-hand experiences, so this kind of knowledge could easily become biased and somewhat distorted. In this context, constructing the intercultural platform for their life and study is of great value and is worth the effort.

As a cooperation and mobility programme in the field of higher education, Erasmus Mundus 2009-2013 strives to enhance the quality of European higher education, to promote the EU as a global centre of academic excellence, and to promote intercultural understanding through coopera­tion with ‘Third Countries’ (i.e. non-European countries) and the development of their higher education. As coordinators in Actions 2 and 3 of the Erasmus Mundus programmes in Asia, our experience of working together with European and Asian partners, of sending Chinese university students to Europe and hosting European students in China, as well as of the positive and encouraging achievement and experiences gained in the implementation, has shown us that the programme provides important opportunities for all participants to meet each other and become acquainted with each other’s cultures, thus building mutual understanding and trust. Students are richly rewarded by an experience that “enriches you, opens your mind and changes you by meeting new and different people, different cultures, and different ways of life”, to quote a commonly shared reflection of students returning to China and Europe from overseas. 

Studying abroad offers the young generation precious opportunities to immerse themselves in new environments “with a wealth of traditions and a history as rich and varied as its many peoples and landscapes”. Besides earning a world-class qualification in the academic sense, they have the chance to learn new languages and intercultural skills that are of great value to their future life and studies in an ever-changing world. During the process of studying overseas, their personal conversations and interaction with people from other countries updates their understanding of ‘others’ as well as ‘themselves’. What is more, it allows their voices to be heard and their ideas to be shared with people of different cultures. Some foreign students even take ‘Erasmus’ as their new names in their overseas lives, and start to regard themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ in a ‘global village’. In this regard, this programme not only involves education and personal development, but is also closely related to culture and mutual understanding. Although there are critics who state that the multilingual environment is somewhat like the Tower of Babel, we can be confident that nowadays young people are capable of surviving and experiencing ‘unity in diversity’.

It is our responsibility to protect cultural diversity, to promote culture as the source of innovation and creativity, to share our cultural products with the global audience. To begin with youngsters, we could enhance mutual understanding and mutual trust through cultural activities and educational exchange, especially among younger generations. To protect and promote cultural diversity, we should help younger generations to understand the diversity of the past that will always exist. Diversity might cause controversy, but it will definitely enrich our world and maintain our special cultural identities. To ensure long-term competitiveness, we should provide more opportunities for young people and try to create a more cohesive social environment for them, thus ensuring the sustainable development of all parties concerned. 

[1] China and the EU announced the establishment of the Comprehensive Partnership in 2001. In 2003, both sides agreed to upgrade the Comprehensive Partnership to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. At the 15th EU-China Summit on 20 September 2012, both sides were determined to intensify relations and establish a stronger EU-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. See the Joint Press Communiqué of the 15th EU-China Summit: Towards a Stronger EU-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, 20 September 2012:

[2] Walter Rüegg (1992) ed., Universities in the Middle Ages [vol. i of A History of the University in Europe] (Cambridge University Press: New York).

[3] See Erasmus Mundus Students and Alumni Association, Graduate Impact Survey, May 2013.

[4] Joseph S. Nye (2004) Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (Public Affairs: New York), p. 14.

Jian Shi

is Vice President, Sichuan University China, in charge of International Affairs and Human Resources. In addition he is Professor of English at the College of Foreign Languages and Cultural Studies at Sichuan University and Director of the University’s European Studies Centre. He received his MA from Sichuan University and PhD from Lehigh University, the United States. He has a wide range of publications in monographs, dictionary and textbooks, translated books and academic papers. Research areas include European Integration Studies, European Migrating Working Force Studies, European Cultural Studies, Cultural Studies Theories and Higher Education Reform.

Yan Zhuang is a lecturer and a PhD candidate at Sichuan University. Her research areas and publication topics include EU-China relations, cultural identity, citizenship and youth policy. Her current research focuses on the promotion of culture in EU external relations. As a young cultural analyst, she attended the EU-China Youth Policy Dialogue 2012 in Brussels. She has also been a grant holder and exchange PhD candidate under the framework of the Erasmus Mundus Action.

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