By Moroccan journalist Yasser al Makhmoum, first published in Alyaoum24. This report was produced as a result of North Africa Journalism Reporting Grants provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project in partnership with Inkyfada, for journalists from North Africa to conduct investigations on North Africa-China relations.
Cultural and popular exchanges between the Chinese and Moroccans have witnessed an important development in the past years, through close contact and acculturation between Chinese tourists and Moroccan locals, and also the growth of cultural and human interaction between Moroccans and Chinese people.
In February 2020, the many alleys of the northern Moroccan city of Chefchaouen were decorated with about 1,500 Chinese red lanterns. In this city known as the "blue jewel", Moroccans celebrated Chinese New Year (or the Chinese Spring Festival 2019) for the first time.
Up until five years ago, cultural and human interactions between Moroccans and the Chinese were limited, even though Morocco held great geopolitical and economic importance to the Chinese.
Did the decision of King Mohammed VI in June 2016 to exempt the Chinese from entry visas, trigger the development of visions and cultural and popular exchanges between the two countries?
We will try to look at the lives of Chinese people in Morocco. How do they coexist with Moroccans? We will be looking for digital data on the development of the influx of Chinese tourists to Morocco over the past few years.
How was the cultural and popular exchange between Moroccans and Chinese enhanced? Why is there a growing interest in Chinese folk culture by the residents of Chefchaouen?
The overall central topic remains related to the nature of the development of visions and cultural and popular exchanges between the Moroccans and the Chinese during the past three years.
The turning point
Observers and researchers unanimously agree that the turning point in Moroccan-Chinese relations, which contributed to the development of popular and cultural visions and exchanges between the peoples of these two countries, was the official visit of King Mohammed VI to China in May 2016, which was marked by the establishment of a strategic and global partnership between Morocco and China. In addition, the two sides signed several agreements in sectors of innovation.
In an interview with "Al-Yaoum 24", Dr. Mohamed Khalil, President of the Moroccan-Chinese Friendship and Exchange Association, said that the development of cultural and popular visions and exchanges between the Chinese and Moroccans sprung from the King of Morocco’s historic visit to China in 2016: "The visit resulted in the signing of the strategic partnership agreement between Morocco and China, which includes several aspects, including the cultural aspect.”
Mohamed Khalil, the first Moroccan student who received a scholarship to study Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine in the 1970s in China, explained that one of the results of the King’s visit was “waiving the entry visa to Morocco for the Chinese, thus the number of Chinese tourists coming to Morocco rose from between 8000-9000 before 2017, to about 200,000 tourists a year, after exempting the Chinese from visas”.
Khalil continued: "Chinese tourism is mainly cultural. Before the pandemic, they used to visit Casablanca, Fes and Chefchaouen first and foremost. This blue city has become a pilgrimage for the Chinese due to its appearance, and they also visit Merzouga in the eastern desert of the Kingdom, where they enjoy the stars that they cannot see in their country because of pollution", again stressing that “Chinese tourism is primarily cultural".
A Chinese confession
The head of the Moroccan-Chinese Friendship and Exchange Association confirms that the association "played a major role in developing relations with China, and completed a large number of activities, which made the cultural aspect very significant."
Khalil said that the efforts made by his association culminated in the Chinese President Xi Jinping presenting him with the "Outstanding Contributions Award to Sino-Arab Friendship" in January 2016, making him one of 10 Arab personalities, including Boutros Ghali, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, to be awarded this High-Level Medal.
In his statement to the website, Mohamed Khalil added: "The presidential endorsement has strengthened the relations between the two countries, and now a large number of Moroccan students are studying in China, and we are organising visits for children, and have participated in a tournament in China."
Khalil spoke also about the existence of "three Chinese language institutes in Morocco, making the Kingdom one of the few African countries to receive all this interest to teach the Chinese language, which reflects the importance of the Chinese for Moroccans to strengthen the cultural field."
Khalil also said that there are “university paths at the Universities of Rabat and Casablanca, related to Chinese studies which is very important”, referring to the “Chinese Cultural Centre in Rabat”, to conclude that “all this shows the desire of the two countries to strengthen cultural relations and develop visions, cultural and popular exchanges between Moroccans and the Chinese.”
In December 2019, the Chinese Cultural Centre in the Moroccan capital of Rabat opened its doors to start its main mission of promoting cultural cross-fertilisation between the two countries.
At the opening of the centre, the Moroccan Minister of Culture and Communication at the time, Mohamed Al-Araj, said that it “will form a bridge to strengthen relations between the two countries in the field of cultural heritage”, and that it was “the second of its kind in the Arab world, and is considered a manifestation of the rooted Moroccan-Chinese cultural relations and its openness in various fields and levels”.
The government official explained that "the cultural exchange between the two countries has known a long and ancient course of exchanges, mainly concerned with the fields of literature and arts, through cultural weeks and mutual participation in different activities organised in various Moroccan and Chinese cities."
According to Li Jinzao, Chinese Vice Minister of Culture and Tourism, "the relations of exchange and cooperation between China and Morocco extend throughout history, and their civilisation is ancient, their culture is advanced, and they both cherish particular values and characteristics."
The Chinese official stated that "there is a great responsibility that falls on the two sides, mainly related to giving utmost importance to strengthening exchange and cooperation between the two countries in culture and related fields".
The Cultural Counsellor at the Chinese Embassy, Shen Dongyun, said in an interview with "Al-Youm 24", that "Culture plays an important role in achieving communication between peoples, and no cultural diplomatic work can achieve success without promoting cross-fertilisation between peoples", further noting that "human interaction is central to cultural diplomacy".
The Chinese official, who is also the director of the Chinese Cultural Centre in Rabat, explained that the latter "is considered one of the most important centres affiliated with China's embassies in the world, and this is evidence of the role of culture in Chinese diplomacy."
Shen Dongyun believes that "the relationship between Morocco and China is very good, and there has been diplomatic exchange between the two countries since the founding of the Chinese Republic, and Morocco is the second African country who established relations with China."
She added, "In the sixties of the last century, the Chinese Prime Minister "Zhou Enlai" visited Morocco, and since then, relations have developed, and the communication continues. History states that there were artistic groups that came to Morocco with the Chinese official in the early sixties, and they played some Moroccan music with Chinese instruments, which highlights the interculturalism between the two peoples”.
She continued: "King Mohammed VI gave a strong push to bilateral relations following his visit to China, and the resulting visa exemption for Chinese visitors, which gave a strong boost to popular exchanges", noting that after the visa waiver, Morocco became a country that was open to China. In just one year, the number of Chinese visitors to Morocco has gone from some 15 thousand to more than 120 thousand tourists".
An affinity for colours
The director of the Chinese Cultural Centre in Rabat confirms that “the Chinese were very attracted to colours in Morocco”, adding that “in Chinese buildings, they have simple colours, more grey and white. Therefore, they fell in love with white Casablanca, red Marrakech and blue Chefchaouen, and they were impressed by this beautiful architectural style”.
The spokeswoman added that “in Chefchaouen, the Chinese were attracted to the blue colour that envelops the city, and the way of living in the small mountainous city, as if it were a mythical city in the middle of the mountains”, stressing that the city of Chefchaouen “is famous among all Chinese tourists, and the people of Chefchaouen love foreigners, open up to them and handle them generously”.
Shen Dongyun added: "In 2019, we decided to celebrate the largest traditional Chinese festival, the Chinese Spring Festival, and the Chinese New Year Festival. We organised cultural activities in coordination with the Chefchaouen City Council, including hanging red lanterns in the alleys and squares of the city, to create a kind of festivity.“
The Chinese official continued: "We saw a very great cooperation on the Moroccan side, and we received great support from the Chefchaouen city council, and from the Moroccan Minister of Tourism. Everyone watched the musical bands with Chinese instruments, which continued to play in the alleys of the city, and thus the people of Chefchaouen shared the same feeling as the Chinese for the first time, it was a very nice experience.”
The Chinese official laments the impact of the pandemic on moving towards strengthening cultural and popular exchanges between Moroccans and the Chinese, and says that “the most noticeable impact in the cultural field is manifested in the suspension of visits by Chinese individuals and bands that used to come to Morocco.”
The advisor to the Chinese ambassador in Rabat said that many grants in the field of culture and education were suspended, and the visits of Moroccans to China also stopped, which temporarily limited the manifestations of cultural cross-fertilisation between the two peoples.
Aziz Mekouar, a Moroccan diplomat and Morocco's current ambassador to Beijing, says that "both the People's Republic of China and the Kingdom of Morocco have an ancient civilisation, and these two civilisations share common identities and enjoy cultural richness that has had great impact on other civilisations throughout history, starting from the ancient Silk Road to the journeys of the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta to China, and the Chinese traveller Wang Da Yuan to Morocco.”
Makwar, who was the head of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), believes that "the two countries have established a network of relations and interactions with each other, through various channels such as cultural exchange, commodity trade, and the exchange of knowledge and experiences", noting in an article published in the magazine "China Today” (founded in 1952), that “the movement of merchants and travellers who have been constantly going back and forth between Morocco and China for a thousand years, contributed to strengthening exchanges and bilateral influences in various fields.”
The Moroccan diplomat continues with a citation from the article titled "China and Morocco... Sixty Years of Friendship", "The Kingdom of Morocco is the first country in the Maghreb region and the fourth country in Africa to sign a memorandum of understanding regarding cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative."
Makwar points out that "Morocco believes in the strategic value of this project, and as an important player in the Mediterranean and the African region, it believes that the communication and connection that the Belt and Road Initiative will generate will bring great benefits to international trade".