By: Ben Leffel
Many years ago, my studies of U.S.-China subnational relations began with a project in which I contacted some 60 U.S. and 30 Chinese cities about their bilateral sister city relationships.—This past week I got to meet several of my former respondents in person for the first time, at the 2014 US-China Sister Cities International Conference. An enormous part of America’s local infrastructure for engagement with China are the hundreds of formal U.S.-China city-to-city relationships which have been established under the Sister Cities International (SCI) umbrella over the past several decades. This local infrastructure is a sturdy skeleton extending across the U.S..
Part of the Tai Initiative’s long-term efforts will be to add meat on those bones. Because sister city relationships are the most commonly used platform for city-level China-U.S. business, environmental, educational and other bilateral flows, they are key targets for the Tai Initiative’s efforts.
American civil society comprises a vast ocean of internationally-oriented organizations, interests, and people, which holds within it the local, regional, and national-level support sister city relationships can draw from to maximize their own potential. In the case of the U.S.-China subnational arena, best practices are constantly evolving and developing, new organizations and initiatives—such as the U.S.-China Cooperative Association of Elected Local Officials and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) China Center—emerge, and new opportunities across sectors constantly surface.
For those who manage U.S.-China sister city relationships on the U.S.-side—be they based in the public, private, or social sector—it is a daunting task to continuously gather the most modern practices, connect to the most relevant people and organizations, and take advantage of emerging new opportunities in the U.S.-China subnational arena. Here at the Tai Initiative, we aim to relieve this burden by helping sister cities acquire such knowledge and resources.
Our conferences will similarly boost the potential of other subnational U.S.-China relationships that exist alongside sister city relationships. A prominent example of such relationships would be those in the EcoPartnerships program. A joint effort of the U.S. Department of State and China’s National Development and Reform Commission, this program helps form U.S.-China pairings of local-level nonprofit, business, university and local government interests so that each pairing may achieve mutual goals in the field of environmental protection and sustainability.
At this past week’s SCI conference, I had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Vatsal Bhatt, a leading thinker on international eco-city development. Part of Dr. Bhatt’s work is to lead the U.S. Department of State’s EcoPartnership Secretariat in forming, overseeing and improving EcoPartnership pairings. Individual EcoPartnerships sometimes incorporate U.S.-China sister city or state relationships as a way to leverage pre-existing subnational relationships and strengthen the environmental exchange component of those relationships. The Utah-Qinghai EcoPartnership is an excellent example of this, and at the Tai Initiative’s upcoming Denver conference it will be featured for its successes, along with the Tulane University-East China Normal University EcoPartnership.
At the SCI conference I also met with: Deputy Consul General Wang Shuying of the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, who will be a key participant in the Tai Initiative Denver conference; Robert Fraser of the Portland-Suzhou Sister City Association, a friend and future partner; and Robert Agee, a long-time colleague and mentor who is on the Board of Directors for the ICMA China Center.
Outside of the conference, I also had the distinct pleasure of spending time with Dr. Sherry Mueller, President Emeritus of Global Ties U.S. (formerly National Council for International Visitors) and discussing her new book Working World: Careers in International Education, Exchange and Development. Dr. Mueller, who now is an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service, is leading the study of cultural diplomacy and introducing some of the nation’s first coursework on this subject.
Lastly, I brought together several friends, old and new, who are interested in U.S.-China cultural exchange and diplomacy. We had a great dinner and talk about our common passion. This past week’s trip to DC was an incredible experience, and a strong reminder of just how much the U.S.-China relationship is driven by enlightened citizen diplomats in cities across the country.