The Turkish capital Ankara recently hosted Chinese Vice-Premier Liu Yandong, where she presented the Turkish translation of a book by President Xi Jinping. Photo: iStock
The Turkish capital Ankara recently hosted Chinese Vice-Premier Liu Yandong, where she presented the Turkish translation of a book by President Xi Jinping. Photo: iStock

Ankara Palas, the state guesthouse in the heart of Turkey’s capital representing a fine example of early Republican Turkish architecture, hosted an interesting and in many ways unprecedented event this week. The Turkish edition of The Governance of China, a book containing a selection of the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speeches and interviews, was launched with a ceremony, attended by the top echelons of power of the two countries.

Chinese Vice-Premier Liu Yandong was there for the release of the book, and she was hosted by her Turkish counterpart, Mehmet Şimşek. The two politicians sat together under a large portrait of Xi, Liu praised the book as “an important token of friendship and cooperation between the two countries”, and she and Şimşek even signed copies for the guests in the room.

It remains to be seen how many copies the book will sell in the Turkish market, but the symbolism of the event is by all means significant. Here is a book containing the ideas of a foreign leader; it has been translated into Turkish, and introduced to the Turkish public with a ceremony in one of the iconic buildings of the nation’s capital.

The Turks’ message here is that they are not only open to dialogue but also willing to improve their communication with the world’s new great power. “The book will be beneficial for better understanding of China’s political attitude and approaches,” Şimşek said, and made the point that Turkey and China shared a common vision based on the “belief in co-existence in peace, prosperity and development”.

The book’s release in Turkish has certainly been an important gain for Chinese soft power as well, and during her visit to Turkey, Liu took further steps in this direction. In Ankara, she opened Turkey’s first “China Library” at Gazi University as a project supported by China’s State Council Information Office and Renmin University. In Istanbul, she joined Turkish scholars and students in a symposium on “Sinology and Confucius Institutes” where she emphasized the “importance of language for communication and cooperation”.

Learning each other’s languages, cultures and world views is indeed crucial for improving the cooperation between nations, and – as Liu’s visit to Turkey has shown – the Chinese are very capable of doing their part, spreading their language, culture and ideas around the world. The way they are received, however, depends also on the receiving side’s expectations.

In Turkey, as elsewhere in the world, growing interest in Mandarin is first and foremost related to the individuals’ expectations from China’s rising economic power in the form of commercial possibilities and job opportunities. Learning Chinese pays significant dividend, because a Mandarin-speaker can expect to have better opportunities in a global economy defined by the rising trade volumes of China, as well as rapidly increasing Chinese investment all over the world.

Here is the point: If the Turks’ interest in Chinese language and culture is expected to last and grow further, it will require such expectations to be kept alive, and new opportunities need to be in reach. Individuals, especially young students, who invest in learning – and this is really a profound investment – need to have realistic incentives for doing so. With respect to Chinese language and culture in Turkey, this is the weak point.

Most of the Turkish companies doing business with China are small and medium-sized enterprises importing products from that country. There are only a few big Turkish players in the Chinese market, and the employment opportunities they are creating is minimal. Most of the Turkish students who have studied in China return to Turkey with acquired skills, but the number of Chinese companies that can absorb them is also very low at the moment.

The largest Chinese investment in Turkey so far is the 65% stake that a consortium of three Chinese companies has purchased in a seaport near Istanbul. China’s large state-owned enterprises and national champions are yet to enter Turkey. In other words, for the time being, neither getting a good job with a Chinese multinational active in Turkey nor being employed by an influential Turkish corporation in China is a feasible possibility for prospective Mandarin learners among Turkey’s youth.

This can change, and what can be called a “virtuous cycle” could be created for the benefit of both the Chinese and the Turks. More business and investment between China and Turkey can open up new opportunities that will encourage more Turks to learn Mandarin, and as they do so, the economic relationship will improve thanks to a growing pool of skilled labor.

New investment projects can help to provide the initial impetus for this cycle. There are already a number of developments that can be considered positive in this sense. For instance, while Liu was in Turkey, PowerChina, a state-owned energy infrastructure construction giant, announced that it would use Istanbul as its regional headquarters. When more examples such as this are brought to life, Turks’ interest in China and its language will continue to grow.

China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, along which Turkey is in a key geo-economic position, can also be a game changer in this respect. However, despite all the euphoria and the optimistic discourse on both sides, OBOR has not produced any concrete outcome so far in terms of joint Turkish-Chinese investments. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travels to Beijing on May 14 to take part in an OBOR summit, the Turkish delegation will surely talk to their Chinese counterparts about steps that need to be taken now in order to turn the idea into reality.

The Governance of China is an important book, offering knowledge about how China is governed, and what its vision for the future is. More people in Turkey will read it when prospects for concrete and productive Turkish-Chinese economic partnership take off, creating opportunities for individuals. This has not happened yet.

Dr Altay Atlı is an Istanbul-based academic, writer and consultant specializing in international political economy and international relations. Information on his work can be found in his personal web site:

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