Maestro Xu Zhong, a leading Chinese orchestra conductor and president of Shanghai Opera House, traveled to Paris for piano studies at the age of 16 and began what he called "close contacts and engagement with France for a total of 18 years".
A keen advocate of bilateral cultural exchanges, Xu held the baton on Thursday at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing directing the opera Romeo and Juliette created by French composer Charles Gounod — the first of the Beijing-based events marking the China-France Year of Culture and Tourism.
He is a witness of how both governments value these events which also mark the 60th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations this year.
President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron delivered video speeches respectively to a reception held prior to the opera's debut on Thursday.
"It is my utmost honor to present what I have learned in France on the stage tonight, and it is part of my conviction to give a boost to the cultural exchanges of the two peoples," Xu said.
On Saturday, Xi and Macron exchanged congratulatory messages to celebrate the establishment of diplomatic ties on Jan 27, 1964. In their messages, both leaders highlighted the ties' great impact and significance for the world.
Xi said that "today's world is once again at a critical crossroads", and he emphasized the two countries' shared identity as "independent and self-reliant major countries and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council".
He called on both nations to "honor the original aspiration of establishing diplomatic relations" and "jointly chart the path for humanity's development that leads to peace, security, prosperity and progress".
Showing his care for the further growth and development of bilateral relations, Xi said he is willing to work with Macron to take the anniversary as an opportunity to make the China-France comprehensive strategic partnership "even stronger and more dynamic", and to make greater contributions to the well-being of the people of the two countries and the world.
In his message, Macron said the world faces unprecedented crises, and it is more important than ever for France and China — as well as for Europe and China — to work together to find common solutions to global challenges.
He said that bilateral relations were "comprehensively revitalized" last year and added that France-China cooperation will go even further this year.
Paris looks to advance bilateral exchanges and cooperation in fields such as the economy, trade, culture and youth, and to strengthen communication and coordination on global issues, he said.
Xi noted that the establishment of diplomatic relations 60 years ago "is still highly relevant today".
The two countries have always honored independence and self-reliance, achieved common development and mutual learning, and played an important role in "promoting the world's multipolarity and democratizing international relations", he added.
Located in the heart of Beijing and known for its shape like a pebble, the National Centre for the Performing Arts is a landmark tourist attraction and another witness of China-France cooperation, as it was designed by the French architect Paul Andreu, who passed away in 2018.
Bertrand Lortholary, the French ambassador to China, hailed the building as "majestic", saying that Thursday's reception and the debut of the opera were "an epitome of our collaboration and arrangements with symbolic significance".
"Let us pay tribute to the men and women of China and France who have worked relentlessly over the past six decades to build strong bonds between our two countries in good times or difficult times," he said at the reception.
Mutually beneficial economic and trade cooperation "is a powerful engine of China-France relations", said Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye.
"The two countries' traditional cooperation projects such as aerospace, civil nuclear energy and high-speed rail are progressing smoothly, while cooperation in emerging areas such as the digital economy, renewable energy and organic agriculture and food have a promising future," he wrote in a recent article.
France had set up more than 6,000 companies in China by the end of 2021, and China has been the number one Asian country investing and creating jobs in France for three consecutive years.
Last year, bilateral trade reached $78.936 billion.
Fabrice Fourcade, vice-president of French power supply giant Electricite de France and chairman of EDF China, voiced his great optimism over the relations' future as well as practical cooperation.
"I believe green energy — ranging from nuclear to renewable, offshore wind, photovoltaic technology — is very promising," he said.
Other promising areas include manufacturing and products from the agricultural, luxury and beauty sectors, he added.
Observers and officials noted that in addition to practical cooperation, in the political context the two sides have maintained great coordination on most regional hot spot issues and have expressed support for major international initiatives put forward by the other side.
"In particular, the two sides have carried out trendsetting cooperation on issues such as tackling climate change and preserving biodiversity," Chinese Consul General in Marseille Dong Guangli told local media.
Zhang Ji, professor and deputy dean of Fudan University's School of International Relations and Public Affairs in Shanghai, said that to make their relations more resilient, the two countries should "shape a correct perception of one another and further tap their leading roles in international affairs".
"France needs to eliminate prejudices on ideology and China's political system, and be more inclusive toward China's development and the Chinese path to modernization. As for China, it should better understand and honor France's leading role in the EU, its influence among many developing countries and its positive role in advancing multilateralism and cultural diversity," he said.
"By joining hands, China and France could and should help avert bloc-based confrontation, new divisions in the world and another Cold War," he said.