By Wang Fengjuan
“Through our walk in Zhejiang, the kindness of the people, the beauty of the scenery and the richness of its culture have left many footprints on our heart and our soul. Our hope is that through our Walk of Friendship we may have left behind a few positive British footprints in the lives and understanding and contributed in a small way to the ‘golden era’ of friendship between the people of China and the United Kingdom,”remarked British Lord Michael Bates at the premiere of The New Stories of Zhejiang, a documentary following his recentlycompleted walk across China’s coastal province of Zhejiang. The documentary was released to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Bates’ walk event and the accompanying documentary were intended to help people better understand Zhejiang and Chinese culture and build a bridge of friendship through cultural exchange.
On October 9, Lord Bates and his wife, Li Xuelin, attended the global premiere of The New Stories of Zhejiang hosted by China International Publishing Group (CIPG) in Beijing. The Zhejiang journey was far from the couple’s first China walk. Since 2011, they have set out on hiking journeys in many countries to raise public awareness about various issues and collect funds for charities. They have already completed three such charity walks in China.
Romance from a Distance
“As my T-shirt stresses, the theme of this charity walk was ‘Walk of Friendship’,” Bates illustrated at the premiere. While hiking across Zhejiang, the couple wore customized T-shirts with the words “Walk of Friendship” in Chinese and English complemented by both Chinese and British national flags. “I am a British, and my wife is Chinese,” he explained. “We both deeply love our own countries and we love each other so much. We are committed to contributing to interaction between the two countries through our own efforts.”
Lord Bates, 58, previously served as Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords and Vice-chairman of the Conservative Party in the UK. His wife, Li Xuelin, is a 55-yearold native of Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province. She was admitted to Zhejiang University in 1981 where she obtained both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in architecture. After graduating, she moved to Britain and has been living there ever since. Their romance began with a chance encounter.
Xuelin has a cheerful personality and frequented various charity activities and parties in England to make friends. In 2011, she hosted a charity dinner at which Michael Bates, then Vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, attended. Xuelin was so busy greeting and taking care of the guests that Bates mistook her for hired help. Not until somebody presented flowers to Xuelin at the end of the dinner did Bates realize the Chinese woman was the host of the event.
The next day, Bates embarked on a 4,800-kilometer hike from Olympia in Greece across 15 European countries to campaign for peace and call on nations to observe the UN Truce resolution for the 2012 London Olympics. On New Year’s Eve, Bates arrived in Paris where Xuelin was waiting to meet him at the Eiffel Tower as he had asked. As the New Year bells rang, Bates took a knee to propose to Xuelin.
On their wedding day, the couple organized the Walk for Peace Foundation with an aim to promote world peace while raising funds for charitable work through hiking. “Walking can motivate people to engage in physical exercise, and it’s environmentally friendly,” he noted.
Lord Bates’ became more focused on charity as he aged. “When I was young, I wanted to become a successful statesman,” he explained. “But now I’ve come to realize that the most important responsibility and duty is not to become somebody, but to do something.” Contrasting politics, charity walks give Bates deeper satisfaction and closer interaction with regular people. “As a politician I recognize that politics often divides but culture always connects,” he said.
New Stories of Zhejiang
Along their hike in Zhejiang, Lord & Lady Bates did a fair amount of leisurely strolling hand-in-hand, but they were also constantly pushed to their physical limits. “We walked more than 500 kilometers from Hangzhou to Wenzhou,” Xuelin recalled. “It was in August and September when Zhejiang was brutally hot. We had to drink a bottle of water every hour, and volunteers bought us ice cream from time to time. Our feet were sore and painful by the evening. Indeed, our walk was tough, but support from people from all walks of life greatly comforted us.” Her tiny, elegant figure hides a strong will and tenacity that helped her complete such difficult hikes in difficult weather.
“Both my legs were extremely sore by the second day of the walk, but I still accompanied Michael on the whole 22.4 kilometers on schedule, which was another success in challenging my limits—all the exhaustion was worth it,” Xuelin smiled. Her husband enjoyed talking with villagers they encountered along the way to learn about local people’s lives.
With his curious mind on China’s targeted poverty alleviation, Belt and Road Initiative and concept of “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets,” Bates walked into Zhejiang’s Xiajiang Village, the departure station of the China-Europe Railway Express and an ancient tea plantation to experience China’s exploration and development first-hand.
“I realized through our walks in China that there is a deep connection between nature and humanity which we witnessed in a very special way in the small village of Xiajiang,” Lord Bates remarked. Xiajiang used to be a very poor pig farming village on the side of a lake surrounded by mountains. The hillsides were bare from being scavenged for fuel, the river was polluted by waste and the smell kept visitors from staying and pushed young people out as soon as they were able.
In 2005, a fresh thinking Zhejiang provincial Party official arrived. He listened attentively to concerns from the poverty-stricken residents and dispensed some fundamental advice. He suggested they plant forests on the hillsides, move the pigs out of the village, switch from dirty fuels to clean energy and clean up the river. When the pigs were gone and the green mountains and clean rivers returned, so did tourists and the younger generation to help run guest houses, shops and restaurants.
The fresh thinking Party official was Xi Jinping and the “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” concept he proposed has become known as the “Two Mountains” theory which challenged the prevailing economic theory that wealth was won by exploiting the natural environment. Xi proved that villages could get rich by caring for the natural environment.
Bates was also surprised to find farmers raising carp in paddy fields in the Zhejiang countryside. Carp eat insects, keeping them from the fields, and their feces can serve as fertilizer to boost rice production. “The rice-fish coexistence system shows that different species can coexist and complement each other—it’s not always about competition, and this applies when we seek solutions,” Bates opined.
“I have to confess that when I first heard about the China-Europe Railway Express, I wondered why the starting point was Yiwu rather than a big city like Beijing or Shanghai,” Bates admitted. The couple stopped in Yiwu and visited International Trade City. In the Christmas products zone, they were drawn to Christmas lamps with diverse designs such as windmills, TV sets, street lights and beacons, each reminiscent of a fantastic Christmas world against a snowy backdrop. The International Trade City tour gave them a deeper and more intuitive understanding of the Yiwu wholesale market as well as the city’s overall development.
Xuelin recalled visiting the market 25 years ago as she was setting up an import/export business when it was just a few hundred outdoor stalls. Rising high behind the market today is a new financial district servicing international transactions.
“It was like opening the hood on a car and seeing a pulsing sports car engine,” Bates illustrated. “This was an engine of wealth that has been powering the Chinese and indeed the global economy.”
Just as the event theme “Walk of Friendship” suggested, Bates ensured his Zhejiang hike was an extraordinary journey of friendship and understanding. “Through this walk and the warmth and openness of the people we met along the way, we hope some layers are gradually being peeled back to show glimpses of the rich culture just below the surface,” Bates smiled.