Rouen and Ningbo
Since the mid-1980s, the city of Rouen has been twinned with the city of Ningbo, located in the northeast of China’s Zhejiang province.
Rouen is a commune in north-western France through which the Seine flows. Ningbo is a port city that was traditionally the starting point of the Silk Road. On these two sides of the world, how did these two cities manage to link up?
The story is little known to the general public, yet it’s true!
How, almost forty years ago, did Vincent Lemarchand manage to become one of the pillars of development and friendship between the two cities? As President of the Rouen-Ningbo Committee, he tells us about his experience and his vision of China…
Tell us, Vincent Lemarchand, how this wonderful adventure came about?
In 1983, I discovered China at the Rouen International Fair, as it was the guest of honor. At the time, I was working in the international department of the Chamber of Commerce. The President of the Chamber wanted to twin the city with a Chinese town. He put the question to the director of the delegation, who headed up the Chinese Pavilion. There were several conditions, however: the Chinese city had to be a regional capital, have a long history and possess a seaport. After several months, the delegation director proposed Ningbo.
Rouen, of course, like all French cities, had a small Chinese community. But these were often overseas Chinese or people from Wenzhou. This population movement took place mainly during the two world wars. However, there were very few Chinese from the interior of the country. This was something very new for us, and for them too. The French have preconceived ideas about the Chinese, just as they have about us! With the President of the Chamber of Commerce, who was also President of the French flour milling industry, we immediately wanted to go there to get to know them better. We came back delighted!
In 1986, at the invitation of the city of Ningbo, the first official document was drawn up. Needless to say, in those years, nothing was easy, especially not roads or means of transport! It took us two days to get to this untouched city. It was then that a first agreement was signed between our two towns.
In 1990, during an official trip to China by the Mayor of Rouen, Jean Lecanuet, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, the document formalizing the twinning of the two cities was signed in the presence of a large delegation from Rouen.
From this point onwards, our exchanges have multiplied in all fields: education, economy, health, culture, sports and city management. The recruitment by the Foreign Affairs office of a French-speaking manager (whom we welcomed for several weeks to introduce him to the various organizations wishing to collaborate with Ningbo) was an important step in our relations.
Even today, we continue to call on his skills to carry out our projects. In 2010, I was lucky enough to receive the title of Honorary Citizen from the Municipality of Ningbo, and I’m proud of it! The work we’ve done to bring the two cities closer together remains, but above all, the friendship between the two countries remains… which is why I’ve continued my work.
Do you think Ningbo has changed in forty years?
To me, the change is extraordinary! This ancient city was little-known, but its port was one of the biggest in China, and already widely open to the outside world. A large number of contacts were made with other countries. It’s worth noting that in Shanghai, there were also a good number of Ningbo-born business people trading abroad.
As soon as China opened up, entrepreneurs lost no time in starting up their businesses. Ningbo underwent incredible development. The population doubled. The port is now the world’s leading port in terms of traffic!
Do you think the Chinese have changed too?
Initially, it seemed to us that the Chinese were rather closed-minded. Perhaps they were uncomfortable with foreigners? But very quickly, they adapted to our French culture and traditions. I was surprised to find that many of them already knew France from studying and observing it. The Chinese are very open-minded. Today, they’re perfectly at ease abroad, and I find that interesting.
What is your personal view of China?
Like many French people, I had ready-made images of an ancient China. What interests me most today is to see how it has evolved in a very short space of time. In thirty years, development has been considerable. When I arrived, there were hardly any cars in China. There were only official cars and trucks. The Chinese rode bicycles.
Now the bicycle has all but disappeared! This shows an astonishing ability to adapt to the modern world. So my vision of China is above all its speed of adaptation. Do we have this capacity in France? I wonder. We still have a lot of reservations…
The Chinese don’t! For them, nothing is impossible. For example, at the start of the project, officials from the city of Ningbo gave us figures and targets to aim for. I don’t remember thinking they’d be so quick to implement their ideas and projects. In fact, the results were even greater than they had announced!
The Chinese are optimistic and confident about their future. They want to change things, and they know they will. Many believe that “tomorrow will be better than yesterday”. I find this vision very encouraging, especially if you’re in China. Do the rather pessimistic French see their future in this way? That’s one difference between our peoples.
Do you think there’s any understanding between France and China?
My idea was to combat these old-fashioned clichés. The Chinese love France deeply and find it romantic. It’s not for nothing that many of them come to Paris to get married and have their photos taken at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Like them, I believe in dreaming, so I try to show that there are great opportunities for development here, and that we can achieve a lot together. Our high-tech industries are very interesting for them. On the other hand, it’s also about making the French understand that China is a country with good ideas that are open to the world.
My experience with the Chinese is rich in this respect. Initially, we worked on the economic front, then moved on to the education sector. We’ve also done a lot of work in the hospital sector. There was an exchange between Chinese and French doctors. Proud of our success, we continued with lawyers, then turned our attention to the cultural world.
We like to highlight our diversity. We can get closer together and exchange ideas without getting political. The French and the Chinese have certain things in common: a long history, a great culture and a rich gastronomy.
The year 2024 will be marked by the sixtieth anniversary of France’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China. This should be an opportunity to recall the importance of France’ s friendly relations with China. Nevertheless, we need to continue our efforts to raise awareness of Chinese realities among the French, and of French realities among the Chinese.
The cliché of France as a “romantic country” should not obscure the fact that we are also a country of economic and cultural innovation. Reducing China to “a workshop producing large quantities of cheap products” is an approach that obscures the great richness of Chinese culture.
The many young Chinese who have chosen to pursue their studies in France confirm the quality of our universities, so it would be desirable for French students to show the same interest in China, which also boasts prestigious universities. These important exchanges should contribute to fruitful future cooperation.
As far as Rouen and Ningbo are concerned, we are continuing our exchanges in all fields after a three-year hiatus due to the health crisis. We are delighted to note that travel has resumed in recent months, and we have recently welcomed three delegations from Ningbo. I’ll be going there in September to relaunch a number of pending projects. Our ties should grow even stronger in the coming months.
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