Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel delivers a speech at the city's second hosting of the US-China Sister Cities Conference. Image: Sister Cities International.

Chicago and Other US Cities Step Up Ties to China


Two new sister city relationships were forged at the annual 2015 US-China Sister Cities Conference, this time held in Chicago in late October. The new partnerships signed between Tustin, California and Heyuan, in Guangdong Province, as well as Yorba Linda, California and Tongchuan, in Shaanxi Province, now join the collection of more than 200 city partnerships between the US and China. The event also marked the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Chicago’s sister ties to both Shanghai and Shenyang.

Tustin and Heyuan share the characteristics of being relatively small residential cities with populations of around 80,000. According to Zhu Weiwei, Heyuan’s deputy mayor, delegates between the two cities hope to cooperate on promoting tourism and environmental development. A sister city partnership is also expected to amplify mutual connections such as student, cultural, and municipal exchanges, as well as to deepen economic ties. Yang Changya, Tongchuan’s mayor, also expressed a desire to learn about municipal management from Yorba Linda, as the small Shaanxi city is attempting to transition away from dependence on coal and enhance its sustainability index. During his tenure as the party chief of Fuzhou, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself was responsible for signing a sister city agreement with Tacoma, Washington, and returned to the town this year on a state visit as president, when he surprised students of the city’s Lincoln High School with a special offer to visit China.

In a larger context, the recent Chicago meeting embodies the vibrant exchange that has been ongoing between Chicago and Shanghai in recent years. In 2013, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed the Gateway Cities Agreement with the leaders of seven of China’s largest cities, establishing Chicago as a gateway into the United States for Chinese companies. As a corollary to the agreement, deputy mayor Steve Koch visited Beijing later that year with members of World Business Chicago to sign a memorandum of understanding on a joint business accelerator with China. That initiative is a means to support Chicago’s small and medium sized businesses aiming to make their way into the Chinese market.

Chicago also hosted the 25th US-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade last year, the first time the event was held outside of Washington, DC. Hosted by Mayor Emanuel, the event helped foster major investment breakthroughs such as the Wanda Vista project, a $900 million real estate plan to construct a vast hotel and retail building complex at Lakeshore East in Chicago.

Of the 50 US states, 35 are home to cities that have already established sister partnerships with Chinese counterparts, while 48 states have sister city ties connecting them to the broader Asia Pacific region in general.

Kyu Seok Shim is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington and MA candidate at Johns Hopkins University - SAIS.