Transatlantic Take

Cities Need to Talk About China

May 05, 2021
Photo credit: NG-Spacetime /
European and North American Cities have deep, historic, and multifaceted ties with China.

Municipal governments have built partnerships with Chinese counterparts around culture, academia and education, science and technology, and investment and trade, among other things. According to data gathered by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the ten largest Chinese cities have an estimated 119 sister-city partnerships with cities in 33 European and North American countries. (This number does not include specific partnership agreements such as friendship agreements, memoranda of understandings, or participation in networks.) These vary in depth and breadth, but according to a GMF poll of city directors of international affairs, the main motivations for these relationships on the transatlantic side are cultural (24 percent); investment and trade (23 percent); general bilateral city partnerships (18 percent); tourism (11 percent); academic (11 percent); and other, including technology, climate, and health (10 percent).

For the most part, they see their partnerships and interactions with Chinese cities, businesses, or consulates and embassies positively—66 percent of GMF’s respondents said their relationship was good or excellent. However, European and North American cities are becoming increasingly aware that these relationships can entail negative as well as positive influences. Some have received donations or been able to access vital personal protective equipment through their partner or sister cities in China, while others received threatening messages, warning them not to engage with Taiwan. Some, like Prague with Beijing, have ended their partnership due to imposed restrictions on engaging with Taiwan. This has led institutions tied to cities being punished in return by China. Especially in a context of growing tension, suspicion, and hostility on the issue of relations with China, cities in North America and Europe need to listen to and learn from each other.  

One challenge is the asymmetry in resources devoted to international exchange. The biggest Chinese cities have a couple of hundred staff working on international affairs. By contrast, many of the most internationally active cities in Europe can count their international staff on two hands, and those in the United States on one hand. The existence and capacity of international affairs offices in transatlantic cities is increasing, but Chinese cities are far ahead of the curve. All major Chinese cities have a Foreign Affairs Office,  while many major U.S. cities still lack such an office or position.

Moreover, international engagement at the local level is a priority for the Chinese national government, so overall in China there is a much higher level of coordination between it and cities, corporations, consulates, and embassies. Those looking for people-to-people exchange with Chinese cities are sometimes disappointed by the official nature of exchanges. More importantly, European and North American cities simply cannot match the resources and level of coordination that their Chinese counterparts have. But they lessen this asymmetry by sharing, learning, and coordinating more among themselves.

There are many opportunities for European North and American cities to improve existing relationships with Chinese cities or to create more meaningful and equal new ones. Today the exchanges are often tilted in favor of learning by Chinese city officials. There is a lot of room for developing more reciprocal ones. Similarly, cities can prepare themselves to deal with negative developments in their relationship with Chinese counterparts by learning from their peers who have experienced this. This can take the shape of knowing what to look out for in municipal or academic partnership agreements, or how to react to complaints and demands from consulates or embassies—for example, over Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, or the Tiananmen Square massacre. It will be easier for cities to know how to politely but firmly decline demands for restrictions on civil society groups when they have seen their peers doing the same. Moreover, taking a consistent position on such Chinese demands can send a powerful message about the fortitude of core values in liberal democracies at the local level.

European and North American cities are learning to find the right equilibrium between maintaining or growing constructive, beneficial relationships with China and not compromising on liberal democratic values and human rights. Furthermore, some have found ways to have a constructive exchange with Chinese cities and even possible successful impacts on certain human rights issues. This could take the form of using existing relationships to advocate for or ask for intervention in individual cases of political prisoners, especially if they are from or have some specific tie to the city. Also, exchanges can be framed and anchored within a normative human rights lens, such as female leadership programs for youth, learning around migrant and refugee integration, or other areas where there are and have historically been challenges in European and North American cities, and so the exchange can be less accusatory.

Exchange between cities on relations with their counterparts in China are also important to better understand and be able to push back against Chinese demands, whether these are to cancel relationships the Chinese government dislikes or demands for support or praise for Chinese policies, such as the Belt and Road Initiative or China’s early coronavirus management, which may run counter to national policy or national security considerations.

While there are some exchanges on China among European cities as well as increasing media and academic attention to these issues, this needs to be increased and to involve North American cities, and even ones in other regions. City officials can often struggle with certain complicated situations; finding out that there are many others who have had similar experiences and learning how these situations developed and were resolved elsewhere can be hugely valuable.

As Larry Diamond and Orville Schell argue, “Because most PRC [People’s Republic of China] attempts to influence American opinion and practices occur at the local level, and because local media, universities, companies, and advocacy agencies are often involved in these efforts, both knowingly and unknowingly, local leaders, just as much as national leaders, need an understanding of PRC goals and strategies.” It is important for European and North American cities to be at the forefront of engaging with Chinese ones constructively, despite worsening relations at the national level, but without compromising their core values or taking unnecessary risks.