Belgian Passage to China at Villa Empain, Brussels

Brussels, 13th December 2021—The Europe-Asia Centre, as an affiliated partner, co-organised the launching ceremony of the Chinese version of A Belgian Passage to China, 1870-1930, a book containing unique and never before published images, letters, diaries and documents which present a historical record of Belgium-China interchange during the 60 years.

The launching ceremony of the Chinese translation of the book took place at the Villa Empain, which was rebuilt and renovated by the Boghossian Foundation in 2010 as a centre of Art and Dialogue between Eastern and Western cultures. His Excellency Mr Herman Van Rompuy, President Emeritus of the European Council, and his Excellency Mr Cao Zhongming, the Ambassador of China to Belgium both attended the event and the former delivered a keynote address to the audience alongside the author and co-authors of A Belgian Passage to China, Dr Johan Mattelaer, Mr Charles Lagrange and Mr Thomas Baert. Ambassador (ret.) and Chairman of the Europe – Asia Center Piet Steel, gave his closing remarks on importance of initiatives such as the book ‘A Belgian Passage to China’ for strengthening the people to people context and dialogue between Belgium and China.

In September 2020, the China Platform at Ghent University announced the publication of A Belgian Passage to China, 1870-1930. This book brings a forgotten episode of Belgium’s overseas history into the limelight, highlighting two Belgian infrastructure projects in China back then: the building of a power station and a tram network in Tianjin and the railway construction yards between Beijing and Hankou. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the diplomatic ties between Belgium and the People’s Republic of China in 2021, the Chinese translation of the book was released this year by China’s Social Science Academic Press.

His Excellency Herman von Rompuy delivered a keynote speech at the launching ceremony. Before entering in some more substantive comments on the content of the book and on the relationship between China and Europe and between China and Belgium, His Excellency congratulated the main author of the book, Dr Johan Mattelaer, and the co-authors: Professor Mathieu Torck, Charles Lagrange, Roland Dussart-Desart, Patrick Maselis, Thomas Baert. He furthermore commented that this book was “very well written and impressively well documented, showcasing “the unsophisticated pictures of daily life in old China taken by Philippe Spruyt”, showing “the nineteenth-century buildings or trains, trams, factories”, and “the famous and less famous personalities”.

His Excellency briefed the audience on the book’s content, particularly on China during the period of the 19th century, and about the people living in what was now Belgium — “their character, their adventurous spirit, the strong religious beliefs of many of them, their faculty to adapt to other cultures, their entrepreneurship”. This book also told its readers that the Sino-Belgian history started with missionaries who was attracted by Chinese culture, civilisation and people. Moreover, the Belgian industrialists discovered the huge economic potential of China in the 19th century when Belgium was an engineering powerhouse with trains, tramways and steel yards.

His Excellency mentioned the perfection of the Villa Empain for this event, because Baron Edouard Empain was a pioneer who invested in Shanghai, smoothing the path of other big industrial ventures of which the railway between Beijing and Hankou (today Wuhan) and the tramways in Tianjin.

His Excellency reviewed the benefit of China’s economic reforms in 1978. To illustrated this point, he took Dr Paul Baron Janssen, founder of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, who established the first Western pharmaceutical factory in China (Xi’an), as an example.

Quoting Dr Mattelaer’s remarks to conclude the lessons learned from this shared Sino-Belgian history. It said: “…the personal histories of individuals and the major lines of history in general, are intended to serve as a record of times gone by, which may help readers of all ages to discover, remember and, above all, understand how the past can shape the present and the future, so that the people of the world can learn for their common heritage in order to acquire a better understanding of each other as that future unfolds”.

His Excellency gave his opinion on today’s current economic, trade and political situation. He said “China has become an economic and technological power, a transformation that has caused significant changes to the established global economic order. The EU trade with China developed in such a way that China has become after Brexit our largest trading partner in 2020 before the US and the UK.”

His Excellency pointed out that “the EU relationship with China is multi-faceted and complex”. First, China “is already the world’s largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity.” However, he didn’t believe in the Thucydides trap and historical determinism. Second, “the rivalry between the US and China does not lead to bi-polarity or a G2…Today there is more multipolarity or a-polarity.” Lastly, “globalisation has created over decades a strong economic interdependence between global actors…Chinese exports to the EU climbed by 33.5% year-on-year in November.”

His Excellency believed that we must overcome the lack of trust between global actors and diplomacy the alternative for war should not only work with “like-minded” countries but also with those who think and act differently.

At last, he expressed his thankfulness to Dr Johan Mattelaer for inviting him to this ceremony and his happiness for the agreement on a summit between the EU leaders and Chinese President Xi Jingping soon.

The event was concluded with official hand-over of the first Chinese translation of the book ‘A Belgian Passage to China’ with Excellency Mr Cao Zhongming, the Ambassador of China to Belgium, author Dr Johan Mattelaer and Ambassador (ret.) Piet Steel.

The launch of this book in combination with its Chinese translation, demonstrates the summary of Belgium-China historical diplomatic experience and cultural exchanges and is likely to be an auspice at this meaningful new starting point for exploring new ways and new areas of bilateral cooperation for the future, benefiting the peoples of the two countries and the whole world.

Photos: Charles Yao (Europe – Asia Center, all rights reserved)