Culture 4th Pillar of Sustainable Development. China in a seductive mode

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Hangzhou, 200km south of Shanghai, was host from May 14-17 to the first major international conference on culture and sustainable development since the Stockholm Conference in 1998 "The power of Culture" that led to the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity in 2001 and to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions in 2005 that Canada and Quebec had so strongly yearned-for.

Some 400 leading experts and cultural activists representing 80 countries, UN partner agencies to the UNESCO and 20 national and international NGOs discussed during the three-day event of the comprehensive contribution of culture to the sustainable development of cities, to social inclusion through the respect of cultural rights, to poverty reduction, to peacebuilding and post-conflict recovery, etc. A session was also organized for Chinese businesses and cities eager to present their corporate sponsorship initiatives in the area of culture and pledge their support to future UNESCO initiatives, which should benefit from this healthy rivalry between them.

The Hangzhou Declaration that resulted from this experts' meeting is not binding in the United Nations system. However, it is a key step in UNESCO's advocacy to integrate culture into sustainable development strategies, as the international community prepares to revise the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) after 2015.

The Conference was of great importance to the Chinese host. It was convened in Hangzhou, the ancient capital whose West Lake is a World Heritage site, in the early days of Xi Jinpeng presidency whose official discourse marked by a new "Chinese Dream" is said to be aimed at "putting people first". The 2011-2015 Chinese plan for culture calls for more efforts to be made in promoting the development of the cultural sector and in expanding the influence of Chinese culture. In Shanghai, they are busy dubbing into English the 100 films of the repertoire for distribution through the growing network of Confucius Institutes abroad.

When inaugurating the Conference, Vice Premier Liu Yandong (third in the hierarchy) was very clear about the new administration's determination to be shoulder to shoulder with the UNESCO to advocate for the inclusion of culture in the post-2015 development agenda. The stakes are high: the renewal of the Millennium Development Goals Achievement Fund established in 2007 through a contribution of USD 900 million from the Spanish government, of which USD 90 million for culture.

But the end result of this first major international conference on culture and sustainable development in fifteen years is also geopolitical. At the domestic level, China urgently needs to restore a sense of values to a large part of its population that seems to have thrown itself head-first into consumerism. After having achieved to become the world's manufacturing powerhouse, after having overcome the challenge of lifting over half of its population out of extreme poverty ($1.25 per day) in a generation, the Middle Kingdom can now foresee to reach in 30 years' time the lead position currently occupied by the United States.

At the international level, China's positioning somehow fills the void left by the United States' withdrawal from UNESCO (and Canada's as it suspended voluntary contributions) after the vote on Palestine's accession to the UN body in October 2011. By choosing to advocate for culture and development, China is striking a double blow to the American friend eager to preserve Hollywood's domination over cinema and TV screens, knowing that this industry ranks second in export value after agricultural products.

Finally, China is sending a message of "friendship" to the developing world, where its investments in infrastructure, in raw materials, agricultural lands... are both a source of prosperity and of great concern. China is making culture, which often serves as the gateway to future exchanges between two States, one of its commitments in socially responsible investments. A deployment of "soft diplomacy" on a very large scale.

But in so doing, China is only catching up on France, Canada, the United States and many other countries that have long understood the power of culture, both as a catalyst and powerful driver of development. The issue of culture, first raised by France and Quebec, is now global. Hopefully China is sincere in its intentions to intervene in accordance with the tenets of sustainable development, in recognizing the necessity of protecting and promoting the diversity of cultural expressions. May its actions be a source of healthy rivalry and not the dawn of a new hegemony, for other countries to be inspired to do more for the arts and culture so desperately in need.

Charles Vallerand is Executive Director at the Coalition for Cultural Diversity and General Secretary for the International Federation of Coalitions for Cultural Diversity.

Dinu Bumbaru is Policy Director at Héritage Montréal.

They both attended the Hangzhou Conference.

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