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8k8 promotion centerPalace Museum exhibitions show civilizations don't necessarily clash

张若昀是在预告第三季吗 | 8k8 promotion center | Updated: 2024-05-29 11:08:04

Exhibited blue-and-white porcelain demonstrates cultural exchanges between China and West Asia during ancient times. [Photo by Wang Kaihao/China Daily]

One usually doesn't visit a museum to learn about new global realities. But exhibitions of historical relics at the Palace Museum (Forbidden City) in Beijing are teaching cogent lessons about contemporary, real-world developments. The exhibitions are being held only because of dramatically changing geopolitical and economic relationships.

One recent exhibition titled, "Historic Encounters: Interaction between China and West Asia", was one of the latest subjects of a report in Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. In the exhibition are displayed hundreds of ancient Saudi Arabian and Iranian artifacts, some of which illustrate reciprocal cultural influence in early China-Middle East trade along the ancient Silk Road.

Another exhibition at the Palace Museum, called "The Glory of Ancient Persia", explores the rich cultural history of Iran. Yet another, titled "AlUla, Wonder of Arabia", displays artifacts from an ancient oasis city in the Medina province of Saudi Arabia.

These exhibitions, with artifacts loaned from Iran and Saudi Arabia, could be held only because of the recent triumph of Chinese diplomacy. In March 2023, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi eventually managed to broker a rapprochement between Riyadh and Teheran, leading to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Diplomacy paves way for museum exchanges

But why would the Palace Museum — the repository of the greatest artistic achievements of Chinese civilization — showcase the products of ancient Islamic civilization? One immediate stimulus may have been Beijing's official commitment to "enhanced exchanges and understanding" among different cultures, as proposed by the Global Civilization Initiative put forward by China's top leader in March 2023.

An event more than a decade earlier provides a deeper explanation. On Sept 7, 2013, at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, President Xi Jinping, while delivering a speech on the "Silk Road Economic Belt", emphasized its lessons for peaceful trade and cultural exchanges in the contemporary world. The Palace Museum is proving the president's point with exhibitions of goods traded centuries ago and of artifacts illustrative of the cultural influences between peoples.

But the Palace Museum's exhibitions are also recognizing a new contemporary reality: China is opening its doors wider to other civilizations. That speech in Kazakhstan marked the launch of the most significant development initiative of the 21st century, the Belt and Road Initiative.

President Xi said the Belt and Road Initiative is to be "rooted in the ancient Silk Road", and to a remarkable extent, many of its first major projects were in the Muslim countries the ancient Silk Road passed through. Today, the initiative involves projects in more than 150 countries, including many that are home to some of the world's nearly 2 billion Muslims.

The Palace Museum's recent exhibitions on Persian, Saudi Arabian and other Middle East artifacts acknowledge China's deepening contemporary engagement with Muslim countries. In the third decade of the 21st Century, when two-fifths of the global population identify with either Chinese or Islamic civilizations, they need to recognize one another: the Palace Museum is doing exactly that.

But it is in the Middle East and North Africa that Belt and Road projects are achieving their most dramatic real-world results. Although frequently accused by critics of being "debt traps", major Belt and Road infrastructure projects in the region have integrated seamlessly with Arab countries' national development plans (such as Morocco's Emergence Plan 2020, Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, Oman's Vision 2040 and Egypt's Vision 2030).

Chinese investments funding vital projects

The modernization of ports (including Saudi Arabia's Jeddah Islamic Port and the United Arab Emirates' Jebel Ali Port in Dubai) has boosted trade and improved logistics for supply chains. New economic zones (such as Oman's Duqm Special Economic Zone and Egypt's Suez Canal Economic Zone) are stirring economic activity. And Chinese investments have funded developments in energy, infrastructure, manufacturing and technology.

Moreover, China has repeatedly and clearly underscored its commitment to the Arab states. In December 2022, while attending the China-Arab States Summit during his state visit to Saudi Arabia, the top Chinese leader urged that "the spirit of China-Arab friendship" be developed into "a closer China-Arab community with a shared future". He reiterated that the Belt and Road Initiative will be the guiding principle, "the lodestar", for such collaboration, and described the relationship between China and the Arab world as a "strategic partnership of comprehensive cooperation and common development".

In economic terms, the partnership promises to link China's market of 1.4 billion people, with the 475 million people of the Arab world. And in geopolitical terms, it suggests a fundamental, long-term re-shaping of relations of the Middle East and North Africa with the rest of the world.

The connectivity enabled by these developments is not only between the Chinese and Arab people. The Doraleh Multipurpose Port, a major Belt and Road development project in Djibouti, is serving as a new gateway from the Middle East to Africa. In recent years, the UAE's trade has surpassed the US' trade with sub-Saharan Africa and, as reported by The Economist (March 26, 2024), Dubai is now home to more than 26,000 African companies. African businesspeople seeking investment and support also congregate in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh or Qatar.

In fact, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's government has been quick to recognize the Middle East and North Africa as the 21st century's most rapidly developing commercial and financial powerhouse. It has done a good job of following up on Belt and Road projects with visits of official delegations to key cities and countries in the region while mobilizing the SAR's resources to develop a full agenda of cultural and financial mega events.

But official enthusiasm for exploiting the vast untapped potential in the Middle East and North Africa has thus far failed to encourage businesses in Hong Kong and the rest of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area to make equal efforts. The same lack of private initiative is true of most Arab businesspeople: they know the vast potential of the Chinese market, but instead of committing resources to it, they hesitate and falter to do so.

Government-to-government contacts alone are never enough to promote commercial and financial development. The effective impetus always comes from people-to-people interactions: at first, in small business deals between individuals; later, after gradually building relations of trust, ever larger deals involving more people; and as mutual profit increases, developing genuine business friendships and partnerships. When people meet to trade, civilizations don't need to clash.

The impressive antiquities from sites in Iran and Saudi Arabia are drawing huge crowds in Beijing. But it is the much humbler, camel-borne objects in the recent exhibitions of Palace Museum that had the clearest lessons for us. They were traded centuries ago by individuals who trekked across deserts and mountains to faraway places. Today's Chinese and Arab business leaders need risk neither life nor limb to seize the burgeoning opportunities in each other's markets. The doors have been opened for them.

The author, a former Egyptian diplomat, is now a permanent resident with his family in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and heads the MENA Chamber of Commerce and promotes business ties between Chinese and Arab businesses. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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