The European Union-China relationship has many dimensions, almost all of them to some degree controversial. Debates rage around issues of trade, investment, human rights and, more recently, climate change.
In a speech at Tsinghua University in Beijing in April, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso appeared to seek a way past what are often sterile debates on both sides on issues such as trade and human rights. Pointing to the economic and institutional ties that have developed in 35 years of EU-China relations, he asserted: "The moment is right to expand our cooperation in other areas."
To this end he argued: "A fundamental task is precisely to broaden and deepen cultural understanding by fostering people-to-people exchanges, for the success of our engagement depends on understanding - on holding an open dialogue, and learning about each other and from each other."
The reality is that exchange of culture defined broadly as intellectual products, including science, law, social sciences, politics, music, literature and film already takes place, but the flow and learning is mostly in one direction. To give an example from the book publishing industry, in 2008 China bought the copyright for 16,969 titles from overseas. Of these, 4,011 were from the US, 1,754 from the UK, 600 from Germany and 433 from France.
In contrast, China sold only 2,455 titles to the rest of the world. Of these, the US took just 122, Germany, the highest ranked in the EU, a mere 96 and France only 64.
By this measure, the flow of culture into China from Europe far outweighs that in the opposite direction. This is evidence of what is actually Europe's enormous cultural surplus with China. While millions of Chinese are reading European works either in translation, or even in their original language, the number of Europeans reading Chinese works even in translation is no more than a handful.
Another measure of this cultural surplus is the flow of student exchanges. According to Eurostat statistics, by 2007 there were 117,000 Chinese students in tertiary education alone in the EU, compared to 18,000 in 2000. Chinese reports say that by 2010 the figure had reached almost 200,000. In the other direction, in 2009 there were 35,876 students from Europe studying in China. But of these, 10,596 were from Russia and the number of students from EU countries was much smaller. Of the two EU nations with the most students in China, France had 5,422 students and Germany, 4,239.
The point could be illustrated by other statistics such as the number of Chinese studying European languages compared to Europeans studying Chinese. The sales of music, films and other products would tell the same story.
This imbalance in the flows of culture of course looks good for Europe, which can see this as a success, even if it does not always directly produce measurable results in terms of sales or power of the soft or normative type that Europeans like to believe they have. Still, the EU can point to the direct influence it has in some areas of policy making in China. For instance, much Chinese legislation and policy in areas such as social welfare and the environment is heavily influenced by European models.