The most commonly used calendar around the world is the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. There are other older calendars. But this week, the Chinese lunar calendar is in focus, with the New Year to be welcomed this weekend on January 28. The exact date varies from year to year in the lunar calendar, usually between January 21 and February 20. It is a huge event for the about 1.4 billion Chinese, tying people together all over land and abroad. This time, it will be the year of the fire rooster, or cockerel, as the Brits would say. Every year is named after an animal, well, a bird this time. The fire rooster is said to be trustworthy, punctual and responsible, especially in work – that promises well for us in Pakistan, too.

A senior staff member at the Chinese Embassy dealing with culture told me a few days ago that they expect in the range of 70 million people to travel every day from now on and for the coming ten days or so, maybe even longer. Everyone would like to visit relatives during the holiday season; that means that the younger people who have migrated to the large Chinese cities during the country’s development miracle in the last decades travel back home to the towns and villages in the rural areas in the large land, to see their parents and grandparents. For a Norwegian like me, coming from a little land with a population of 5 million, the size and numbers in China are almost beyond comprehension.

When I met the Chinese Embassy official, I attended a pleasant event at the City School in Islamabad, a school with over 2000 students, yes, almost Chinese in size and number. It was fascinating to listen to officials from the Chinese Cultural Centre in the capital explaining the Chinese traditions related to food, social activities for adults and children, telling of fun and superstitious stories, and so on, when the Chinese new year is ushered in. Many of the century-old traditions are not entirely different from things we do at religious feasts in Muslim and Christian countries, although the traditions are more cultural than religious in China. The fireworks are certainly more important in China than in many other places.

Let me wish all Chinese a happy new year – and let me congratulate Pakistan and China on the many cultural and educational activities that we can find in Pakistan, including exchange visits, scholarships, language courses, and more. The principal at City School in Islamabad told me that the school had just started offering Chinese language classes, and that several groups of teachers and students had already visited China. The students who spoke at the event were enthusiastic about the large land they had seen a glimpse of during their visits.

In other words, the cooperation between Pakistan and China is much more than the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC, that we hear so much about, plus a number of other massive infrastructure projects. There are also softer projects in other fields; over time, they may become as essential for the cooperation between Pakistan, a major country in the region, and China, the emerging superpower.

When USA after the Second World War gave assistance to reconstruction of Europe, many activities were implemented under the Marshall Plan or, Marshall Help (1948-1952). Officially named the European Recovery Program, ERP, it was an important way of tying America and Europe closer, yes, with major infrastructure and other projects so that Europe could build back fast and become customers for American products.

That is interesting to think about today, when America’s new president and many others complain about having difficulties selling their products overseas, and everybody in USA and elsewhere is buying the cheaper Chinese manufactured goods; however, their goods are beginning to become more expensive, with higher labour costs at home. Some say that when prices go higher, there will be niches for India and Pakistan to fill.

I wonder if we in Pakistan, during and after CPEC, like the Europeans after the Marshall Help, will become a bit Chinese in our hearts and minds, similar to what happened to the Europeans becoming quite American-friendly in taste and values? When I grew up in Norway in the 1950s and 60s, we thought everything modern and fun was American. In Pakistan, the material gains from CPEC and other Chinese economic investment in Pakistan, the trade between the countries, and the growing purchasing power of local people, are likely to make us more China-friendly.

Good relations with China include economic and industrial aspects. But what is more important in relations between countries, money, industry, natural resources – or human resources? We want all of it, of course, with cordial political relations at the bottom. Yet, I would like to stress that without the people-to-people contact good relations between countries may be less deep and lasting. That is why the education and cultural cooperation between Pakistan and China is so essential. There is learning both ways; when people know each other better, through tens of thousands of study, cultural, business and tourist contacts, that can only be positive, even necessary, for the ‘hard aspects’ of cooperation.

Some years ago, a young Islamabad woman who married a wealthy Lahore businessman had the opportunity to travel the world on her honeymoon. I knew the bride’s parents well, and her father told me that the land that had impressed his daughter most was China. Since I was still a bit ignorant about China’s infrastructural and institutional prosperity, I was surprised and couldn’t quite believe it. Now, some six or eight year later, I believe she was right. The Chinese development miracle is indeed impressive, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and ignorance, and building impressive railroads and cities – lighting them up with fairytale fireworks at special occasions. However, such massive urbanisation and change has side-effects, too.

Let me therefore, in ending my article today, underline the importance of the ‘soft sectors’, education and culture, with all the sub-sectors, including religion, traditions, history, age-old ways of doing things and living together, and more. As I said above about Pak-China relations, I would also underline these sectors within China as the country develops further. It must not be an elephant on clay feet; it must walk on four legs, planted safely in the land’s and the people’s cultures – and today, in our interconnected world, borrowing from others, too, and making the foreign relevant to the local. Over time, China, will become more democratic, diverse, multicultural, and less streamlined and directed from above. After all, it is the not only the leaders that build a land, and its friendly relations across borders; it is even more, all the hardworking, ordinary people.