by Xinhua writer Jin Jing
At the exquisite Maxim's restaurant near Place de la Concorde in Paris, Zheng Siti, chief representative of Maxim's De Paris in China showed an old picture of a dashing Western foreigner walking on a street of Beijing with both hands in his coat pockets, drawing all the attention of the Chinese nearby.
It was in 1978 when French fashion icon Pierre Cardin visited China for the first time, the same year China kicked off reform and opening-up. Most Chinese then saw fashion and the Western culture in general defiantly as a bourgeois lifestyle, though with an abundance of curiosity, Zheng recalled.
Forty years on, Europe sees China rising from a largely destitute and isolated country to the world's second largest economy pursuing an increasingly open and inclusive development.
In a changing world marked by uncertainties, China and Europe are embracing more opportunities for cooperation.
A TASTE OF OUTSIDE WORLD
The first-ever fashion show in China was thrown in 1979 by Cardin in the Cultural Palace of Nationalities in central Beijing. The contrast between the high-heeled golden-hair models and the strictly limited size of the audience in grey blue uniforms holding their breath could not be starker.
Cardin, however, having seen the huge potential in the just-opened Chinese market, not only brought his fashion business to China, but also decided to open a Maxim's restaurant in Beijing in 1983, two years after he bought the renowned French restaurant.
Investing 3.5 million U.S. dollars in the Beijing restaurant when ordinary Chinese earned no more than 10 dollars a month, Cardin's move was seen as a "commercial suicide."
"Cardin has an unparalleled long-term vision. He sees the Chinese as a hard-working people and the change of China inevitable," Zheng said.
The opening of the Maxim's restaurant in Beijing marked the start of China's embrace of the Western culture, causing a public sensation and hitting headlines on China's state television. The success of the restaurant was followed by the opening of the first KFC restaurant in Beijing in 1987, which has expanded to more than 5,000 outlets in China in 30 years.
For a long time, the Beijing Marxim's restaurant was dubbed "the second French embassy," a high-end meeting venue for politicians, dignitaries and artists.
Now with a steadily expanding middle class as China lifted 740 million people out of poverty in four decades, the Beijing Maxim's restaurant has turned into a chic public dining place amid a hugely diverse and internationalized culture in Beijing.
The Chinese consumers are more willing to open their wallets and embrace the world as the average personal disposable income rose from just 171 RMB (about 25 U.S. dollars) to 26,000 RMB (about 3,768 dollars) each year.
Pierre Cardin, due to his early devotion to the Chinese market, has become one of the most recognizable fashion names in China that contributed to the changing face of the Chinese society.
RIDING ON CHINA'S RISE
Perhaps there is no other industries like the car industry that could better illustrate how far China has achieved in lifting people's living standards while offering a ride to foreign companies. Since 1978, foreign-brand cars have been running on Chinese streets.
Zhang Suixin, executive vice president of Volkswagen Group China, witnessed the transformation of China from a "kingdom of bicycles" to the world's largest car market with annual sales hitting more than 28 million.
Volkswagen was one of the first foreign brands that established links with China when a Chinese delegation visited Germany in 1978.
Back then, China only had two domestic car makers, namely, SAIC and Hongqi (a homegrown luxury brand which literally means "red flag") with a combined annual output of some 1,100 vehicles, Zhang recalled.
In four decades, China's GDP increased from 367.9 billion RMB (53.3 billion dollars) to 82.7 trillion RMB (11.99 trillion dollars) in 2017, an average growth of 9.5 percent compared with 2.9 percent of the global economic growth in the same period. For many years, China has contributed more than 30 percent to the global economic growth.
The SAIC Volkswagen, the Sino-German joint venture formed in 1985, has grown into an auto giant with an annual production of 2 million cars. China is Volkswagen's biggest single market in the world, accounting for 40 percent of its global sales.
"It was beyond imagination back in 1978," said Zhang, who was a college student then and joined Volkswagen in 1990.
Latest official figure shows that there are more than 40 cars for every 100 Chinese families and the number of total private cars in China has hit more than 180 million.
Meanwhile, China's car industry has become increasingly competitive and innovative with the rapid growth of electric cars and intelligent networking, Zhang said.
INNOVATION SHAPES THE FUTURE
At St. James Palace at the heart of London, three Chinese innovation start-ups thrilled Britain's Prince Andrew and over 300 business leaders and investors in a high-end global competition, triggering cheers and applause in the bleak winter.
The Pitch@Palace, an initiative founded by Prince Andrew in 2014 to support entrepreneurs with innovative ideas, selected 23 entrepreneurs from hundreds of participants in 15 countries for its global final.
Three Chinese start-ups entering the Pitch@Palace global final were YI Tunnel, one of the first companies in the world to use artificial intelligence (AI) in the retail sector; Pony AI, designer of first self-driving fleet operating on China's open city streets; and China Craftsmanship, which combines Chinese traditional craftsmanship with online data collection to create a fresh business model.
"China has got just as much innovation as anywhere else," Prince Andrew told Xinhua. "We have seen some extraordinary good businesses coming out of China and the three that you have had here are just outstanding," Prince Andrew said.
Prince Andrew first visited China as Britain's special representative for trade and investment in 2004 and has visited the country several times since then.
"It wasn't until I suppose I had visited about two or three times that I began to see the innovation that was going on in China. And since then it's just got bigger and bigger, and more and more," the Duke of York said.
According to an annual report by the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), China recorded the highest IP application volume in the world in 2017.
China, whose Global Innovation Index (GII) ranking has risen from the 22th in 2017 to the 17th this year, has become the first middle-income nation on the list of the world's 20 most innovative economies.
"Increasingly, the one the rest of the world will pay attention to is not the factory-and-warehouse-floor aspect of China, but the new entrepreneur-driven China that is poised to reshape at least some facets of our common global technology future -- with growing strength in fields ranging from artificial intelligence to genomics to drones," said Christina Larson, an award-winning science journalist.
A CONTINUOUS JOURNEY
In the past four decades, China has been rolling out a spate of measures in its reform and opening-up drive, from establishing special economic zones to further opening up inland regions, from joining the World Trade Organization to establishing free trade pilot zones.
Zhang of Volkswagen foresees the Chinese market will provide even more opportunities for Europe. U.S. electric carmaker Tesla Inc. has announced the set-up of its first overseas plant in Shanghai, becoming the first to benefit from a new policy that allows foreign carmakers to set up wholly-owned subsidiaries in China. The Europeans are expected to follow suit.
Korbinian Wagner, spokesman of German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, welcomes China's move to further open up its market.
Germany is "very interested in furthering mutual economic relations" with China, he told Xinhua.
In his latest visit to China in November, Prince Andrew led a British delegation to Shanghai to participate in the first China International Import Expo (CIIE).
For him, the pace of cooperation between China and Britain will intensify as China further opens up and upgrades its traditional industries.
"I think there are all sorts of opportunities that we thus far haven't found," said Prince Andrew.
As the Duke of York pointed out, it is important for Westerners to better understand China as it embarks on a new course of development.
"It takes a lifetime to learn China," said Prince Andrew. "I am on that journey."
(Xinhua reporters Zhai Wei in Brussels, Gu Zhenqiu, Zhang Dailei, Zhang Jiawei in London, Qiao Jihong, Zhu Sheng, Lian Zhen in Berlin, Xu Tian in Paris contributed to the story.)