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25 years of Sino-European cooperation in Earth Observation

It all started in 1977, when a senior delegation of officials and scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), visited Europe to discuss establishing scientific cooperation between European researchers and Chinese ones. During February and March of 2003, Professor Dr. John van Genderen of the ITC in Enschede, the Netherlands will celebrate the Silver Jubilee of scientific cooperation between Europe and China.

The 1977 visit of senior delegation of officials and scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) was hosted by The Royal Society in London, United Kingdom. As one of the fields in which China wished to establish joint research activities was Remote Sensing, Professor van Genderen was invited to join these discussions in London. As a result, he was invited by CAS to visit China in the Spring of 1978 for follow-up.

On his first visit to P.R. China during April and May of 1978, he gave several lectures and held meetings with Chinese scientists to discuss the setting up of an Institute for Remote Sensing. He was the first European remote sensing scientist to visit China. This was still in the time before Deng Xiaoping became President of China and started the “Open Door” policy. The president during Professor van Genderen’s first visit was Guo Hua Feng.

With typical Chinese organizational efficiency, the CAS established its Institute for Remote Sensing Applications (CAS-IRSA), which commenced work in 1980, with Academician Professor Cheng Shu Peng as its first Director. Since then, there has been a long and strong relationship between CAS-IRSA and the ITC and other European remote sensing organizations. In 2000, Professor van Genderen was one of the guests at the 20th Anniversary Celebrations of CAS-IRSA.

Dr. He Changchui, a young physics graduate at the time and who acted as his interpreter and guide during that trip, came to ITC to study the following year. Also several other ITC staff members were invited to China for follow-up later on. Many of the more than 300 Chinese who have studied geoinformation and earth observation at ITC since then have obtained senior positions back in China.

In 1986 ITC received large grant from the Netherlands government to set up a sister institute in Wuhan. This Educational Centre for Urban and Rural Planning and Management (ECURSPAM) was affiliated with the then Wuhan Technical University of Surveying and Mapping (recently merged with Wuhan University). The European Union has awarded him several research projects under the 3rd, 4th and 5th Framework Programmes. For the Asian Development Bank, he was Team Leader for a major Technical Assistance Project on “Monitoring and Management of Fragile Ecosystems in Shanxi-Shaanxi-Inner Mongolia”.

Professor van Genderen is probably best known for his research into the problem of underground coal fires in north-west China. Since 1987 he and his team of remote sensing researchers at ITC have carried out numerous projects in this field in Xinjang, Gansu, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia. This research has resulted in many scientific publications in internationally refereed journals, wide coverage in the media, and in several Achievement Awards by the Chinese government.

In 1994, he attended, on behalf of the Netherlands Government, the First Ministerial Conference on Space Applications in the Asian Pacific Region, held in Beijing, as well as attending many other international conferences in China over the past quarter of a century, such as the Asian Conference on Remote Sensing, the International Geological Congress, the first International Symposium on Digital Earth and many others.

In 1987 he was appointed an Honorary Professor in Remote Sensing at the Xi’an University of Science and Technology, and in 1996 he also became an Honorary Professor at the Wuhan University. He has often been referred to as the Dutch “Marco Polo” building a bridge between China and Europe, and contributing, both to knowledge transfer and joint Sino-European cooperation. The many Post-Doctoral scientists, visiting scholars, PhD and MSc students that he has assisted, are now ensuring that China is becoming a leading actor on the international earth observation scene. By personally leading many Chinese delegations on European study tours to visit remote sensing companies, research institutes and government organizations throughout Europe, he has fostered further cooperation between China and Europe in Earth Observation.

To mark the25th Anniversary of remote sensing cooperation between Europe and China a Banquet will be held in his honour in Beijing in March 2003.

International Institute for Geoinformation Science and Earth Observation (ITC),
Department of Earth Observation Science, Enschede, The Netherlands.