EU-China Year of Youth – Chance for democracy?

, by Martin Fischer

EU-China Year of Youth – Chance for democracy?
Signing of the Joint Action Plan for the Europe-China Year of Youth 2011 by Lu Yongzheng, on the left, and Androulla Vassiliou in the presence of Wen Jiabao, Herman van Rompuy andJosé Manuel Barroso (standing, from left to right) Credit © European Union, 2011

2011 is the EU-China Year of Youth, introduced by Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier and José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. This Year is proposed in order to bring Chinese and European youth together to exchange, learn and foster mutual understanding and build, as the slogan promises: “bridges of friendship”. What the actual output will remains to be seen.

First result of the EU-China Year of Youth most likely has been two new calls for special actions within the Youth in Action (YiA) Framework. One call for a new European Volunteering Service programme in exchange with China, giving the opportunity to young people from China and the EU to go volunteering in each other regions. The second call is for the Youth in the World programme in Youth in Action, giving a budget of 3.000.000€ to establish youth exchanges between the EU and the world, explicitly calling for actions with China. This call for Youth in Action is a unique opportunity to give young people the chance to go abroad.

Promoting Youth in Europe and China

One of the common phenomena when cooperating with countries far away is changing your perspective from being French, Norwegian, Italian or Bulgarian to being European. This is a great opportunity to build citizenship amongst the European participants in fact. But factual exchange of (democratic) culture and beliefs between both partner seems a bit far fetched.

Usually the core of YiA is supposed to build and increase European citizenship amongst its participants, part of this being fostering solidarity amongst young people, mutual understanding, quality support systems for youth activities and more European cooperation in the youth field. YiA seeks to support the “new youth policy framework for European Cooperation in the youth field”, especially the sub sections “Youth in the World”, as well as feed into the EU2020 flagship initiative “Youth on the Move”, broadening the scope of Youth in Action.

Youth participation, which is in Europe developed in a model of interlinking youth organisation networks and umbrella structures, covering a variety of youth organisations. The European Youth Forum consists of 99 different youth organisations, including the 33 National Youth Councils. Its Chinese counterpart represents 52 member organizations and over 77.000 individual members, reaching out to the 300 Million young people in China. The Chinese model is much more paternalistic in the respective, that especially youth-led organizations and open youth work models are not very present and the whole structure follows a strict top-down scheme.

The Chinese Youth Organisations presented in the Opening Ceremony of the EU-China Year of Youth had a very narrow focus, presenting youth groups for after school education. The organisations came from sports and arts backgrounds, like football or photography clubs. These organisations certainly have the mission to educate and develop young peoples skills, guiding them and integrate them into the Chinese society.

Youth participation and the “Far East”

A common topic of youth exchanges within the YiA framework is youth participation, the role of civil society and democracy building. These inter-cultural exchanges combine often methods of Human Rights education with topics of democracy building and support of active citizenship.

At the Official Opening Ceremony of the EU-China year of youth a lot of arguments were exchanges reasoning a rather different approach, explaining the reasoning behind Chinese politics, but often resulting in a kind of “you got to be Chinese to understand it”. One example was “democracy is like shoe, you have to wear it, whether it fits, if it doesn’t try another shoe”. As one options amongst many it is the best solution for the Chinese people, disapproving Churchill’s popular comment “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

In fact it seems that especially the topic of citizenship education and its different understandings has immense conflict potential. This can be recognized when recapitulating the proposed activities for the youth in the world action by the initial EU-China year of youth partners:

 Exchanging 200 students between European and Chinese families for a few month
 Starting a common sports event
 Travelling and sightseeing

The kick off event leaves a bitter-sweet taste. Sweet are the efforts made, the new impressions and all the intended openness. Bitter is the expectation that the means and goals are to far apart and further cooperation would have maybe suited better the Life Long Learning programme, which focuses on more common and uniting topics and interests.

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