Sino-Turkish cultural bloc

Shanghai – It was interesting to discover that Chinese relations with Turkey was one of the topics discussed during the secretive Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee meeting in Beijing last month. This is a significant piece of information considering that the 365-member committee is the highest authority of the ruling CPC. For four days between Oct. 15 and 18, this select group of people gathered behind closed doors to shape the next generation of political leaders of China as well as to set the tone and direction for the political, economic, social, cultural and foreign policy.

According to two key participants with whom I spoke this week as a part of a weeklong China tour, I got the sense that China is seriously committed to developing ties with Turkey in a number of areas, from politics to the economy and from security cooperation to social policies. But more importantly, the Chinese believe that all these cooperation schemes may not be sustainable amid the fast-paced changes in the global environment and want to lay down “cultural” building blocks in Turkey for a strong base upon which to establish better ties with Turks on other fronts.

In other words, with a twist of the Mao Zedong’s modern day version of the Great Leap Forward, Chinese has decided to project a “soft power” image on the Turkish public so that the growing ties will become somewhat immune to changes in domestic or external dynamics. The subject of Turkey during the key Central Committee meeting came into play within this framework since the main theme of the meeting this year was culture. Though domestic concerns over cultural dynamics against the encroachment of Western values through social media and the Internet were a paramount concern for the CPC rulers, China has realized that it cannot cope with the challenges alone and certainly not in isolation — something Chinese officials believe the West intends to pursue to pressure China.

For followers of Sino-Turkish relations in the last couple of years, making culture a key to further improving relations between the two countries should not come as a surprise as there was more than enough evidence pointing in that direction already. Reading between the lines during unprecedented senior-level official exchanges between the two countries recently, one might easily conclude that a fundamental change has taken place with regard bilateral ties. For example, during Premier Wen Jiabao’s official visit to Ankara in October 2010, the main sales pitch floated by the Chinese was closer cultural exchanges, even though Jiabao offered proposals for cooperation on other issues as well. The two sides signed a document to promote cultural ties.

The Chinese premier’s visit was preceded in April of that same year by Li Changchun, an influential member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC’s Central Committee. During his visits to both İstanbul and Ankara, Li kept calling on the two countries to increase cultural exchanges. He inaugurated the second Confucius Institute, the institution for foreigners to learn the Chinese language and about Chinese culture overseas, at the leading Turkish Boğaziçi University in İstanbul while announcing plans to launch more such institutes in the coming years. In return, China will allow Turkish cultural initiatives to take place in its own society.

To get his message across, Li also met with the heads of major media groups while in Turkey and asked them to portray a better image of China to the Turkish people while urging an exchange of visits by media representatives of the two countries. Considering that Li is also the chairman of the Central Guidance Commission for Building Spiritual Civilization of the CPC, one of the most important ideological bodies of the party, his special emphasis on Turkey carries a significant message for the future direction of Turkey-China ties.

To complement the cultural opening with Turkey, the Chinese government in September 2010 launched the Turkish edition of China Today, a magazine co-sponsored by the China International Publishing Group and Dijitex Group. The magazine, the first Chinese magazine in Turkish in the country, intends to provide first-hand information to the Turkish public about China’s economy, culture and society. A month later, China also launched the “Experience China in Turkey” program to showcase Chinese songs and dance, film weeks and food festivals to the Turkish people. The programs were held in Ankara, İstanbul and Kayseri. We also note a surge of activity among intellectuals of both countries recently with exchanges between think tanks on the rise.

The agreement in February 2011 between Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate and the Chinese Islam Association to train and educate China’s imams can also be seen from a cultural perspective as well. Some 10 million Chinese Hui Muslims, who make up 50 percent of all Muslims in China, share the mystical Sufi characteristics of Turkey’s Muslims. Both preach modesty and focus on the inner-oriented approach. More importantly for the Chinese and Turkish governments, Sufi Islam encourages loyalty to the state and governing structures while condemning violence, terrorism and anarchy — something both countries want to get rid of.

In light of the recent CPC’s Central Committee meeting decisions, China is gearing up to further promote Chinese culture in Turkey. They encourage Chinese people to spend their vacations in Turkey and consider the “Chinese Year in Turkey in 2012” to be a perfect opportunity to publicize Chinese culture to the Turkish people.

The special designation comes on the heels of a series of celebrations to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries this year. “The Chinese year in Turkey is a major opportunity for us to capitalize on. We are planning to send a huge delegation to Turkey. We will open a new chapter in our relations,” Ms. Kong Yufang, deputy governor of Henan, who is responsible for cultural affairs, told me over a lunch in Zhongzhou city.

Turkey and China represented two opposite power centers during the period when trade thrived on the Silk Road trade route linking the East with the West centuries ago. Now we see attempts to revitalize that link based on cultural foundations. The Chinese are patient people, and they seem to have a strong conviction that the future belongs to Asia. For that, they are willing to embrace this vision. Turkey, a regional powerhouse and a serious contender for becoming a global player at the crossroads of both the Asian and European continents, fits well in the playbook of the Chinese power game

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