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A Twin-Win Situation

March 22, 2013 5:08 PM
By David Bartram and Ji Xiang in China Daily

Partnerships between Chinese and European cities bring lasting benefits to both sides in economic and cultural spheres

The locals are accustomed to cold winters in Sunderland, a small post-industrial city in the northeast of England, but nothing quite as extreme as the -25 C regularly experienced in Harbin, in the far north of China.

Exchanging tips on how to beat the cold is just a peripheral benefit the two cities have enjoyed since signing a friendship agreement in 2009. The deal looks to build economic, educational and cultural ties between two cities almost 8,000 kilometres apart.

"We very much believe that as a city we have to forge links internationally and look to global opportunities," says Paul Watson, leader of the Sunderland City Council. "The links we are developing with Harbin are very much part of this approach as we build relationships that we hope will generate economic and educational benefits for our cities."

Sunderland's agreement with Harbin, in Heilongjiang province, is part of a wider trend among Europe's towns and cities, which are increasingly turning toward China in search of friendship, twinning or sister-city arrangements.

City twinning gained popularity across Europe after World War II, with most arrangements between European cities. Today, almost three-quarters of the UK's approximately 2,000 formal twinning arrangements are with counterparts in France or Germany, according to the Local Government Association.

But cities like Sunderland are beginning to look further afield, particularly for twinning arrangements with cities in fast-growing developing countries. China is emerging as one of the most popular destinations for new partners.

While there is an obvious economic incentive to such arrangements, the scope of friendship agreements is also widening. These days, sister-city partnerships also tend to include civic, cultural, educational and research exchanges.

Sunderland's friendship agreement with Harbin, for example, has a strong focus on education. The city sent a delegation of head teachers to Harbin in 2009 to establish school partnerships. Since then, pupils from schools in the two cities have been holding video conferences and exchange e-mails and letters. Sunderland schoolchildren have visited Harbin in each of the past two years.

"We feel it is important to help prepare our children and young people to be able to participate fully in today's global society and economy," says Watson. "The cultural and educational links with Harbin help to increase their understanding of other cultures.

"In the longer term it also provides them with important skills and inter-cultural understanding, which employers will be looking for as they compete in an increasingly global economy."

Since September 2011, Harbin University has interacted with the University of Sunderland by phone, e-mail and visits.

"Hopefully, the cooperation with the University of Sunderland can help us learn about the advantages and features of the university and have a better understanding of our own weak points to provide experience and direction for future development," says Chen Si, who works for the dean's office at Harbin University.

Harbin University's academic cooperation includes teacher and student exchanges and joint education programs, particularly in its key majors of software engineering, art design and animation.

Cultural links

Sheffield is another English city seeking a closer relationship with Chinese counterparts. Sheffield has had a twinning arrangement with Anshan, in northeast China's Liaoning province, since 1983, but in 2010 it signed a second friendship sister-city agreement with Chengdu, capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan.

"The Chengdu link came out of a piece of work we did in Sheffield a few years ago where we decided we could gain most economic advantage out of a more international approach," says Edward Highfield, director of Creative Sheffield, an organization that promotes the economic development.

"That put China toward the top of our list. Then we looked at more opportunistic things that would set Sheffield apart. At the time, there was a strong link emerging between Sheffield United football club and Chengdu Blades football club. When we put the analysis together with the practical concerns, Chengdu was our first pick for a Chinese sister city. Luckily they were very receptive as they were actively looking for a UK sister city."

Official sister or twinning agreements tend to follow on from periods of increased engagement between two cities. As well as the burgeoning link between football clubs in Sheffield and Chengdu, economic ties between the cities have also progressed. Highfield gives the example of one European IT company, headquartered in Sheffield, which has just opened its first China office in Chengdu.

Chengdu prefers cities that have complementary industries, and also those from which it can learn. Sheffield, renowned as a "green" city, became the first in the UK to establish a sister city relationship with Chengdu.

In 2011, the two cities agreed to have the "Town of Sheffield" built in Chengdu, focusing cooperation on sustainable development, low-carbon technology and the concept of building a garden city.

Sister city links are convenient and efficient ways for the inland city to become international, says Ge Honglin, the mayor of Chengdu.

The cultural element is important too. Artefacts from Sheffield's museums have been exhibited in Chengdu. In return, Chengdu has sent performing artists to Sheffield.

"We were explicit about our economic focus but it is reinforced and supported by more civic and cultural links," says Highfield. "A lot of companies in Sheffield trading in Europe simply don't need the sort of civic support that they need if they are trying to get into a Chinese market.

"To be able to ever so slightly differentiate a Sheffield company in Chengdu is a huge help. There's no doubt about it, there's an enormous amount of affection and good will for Sheffield in Chengdu. For a company to be able to take advantage of that can really help."

Nick Clarke of the University of Southampton, who has conducted research into British town twinning in conjunction with the Nuffield Foundation, says that British localities are likely to continue to seek partnerships in the world's fast-growing economies, such as China.

And he notes that despite a recent spate of UK-China friendship agreements, many British cities have been linked to Chinese counterparts since the 1980s. Cardiff's 1983 twinning agreement with Xiamen in East China was the first such arrangement between the two countries.

"China opened up to the outside world and was clearly becoming a major economic player," says Clarke. "British towns and cities were struggling to reinvent themselves in a globalizing economy. Town twinning became increasingly led not by British local authorities, suffering reduced budgets, but by local groups of various kinds, including business associations."

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European links

In France, the National Commission for Decentralized Cooperation (CNCD) oversees 70 towns, cities and departments across France with friendship agreements in China.

"Since China's opening up, there has been a lot of cooperation between France and China," says Jean-Claude Levy from the CNCD. "We passed a law in 1992 which gave towns in France a lot of autonomy in making agreements and cooperation with foreign cities.

"Governments can provide some assistance too, by contributing financially. At first it was about friendship, language and cultural exchange, but step by step it is changing to economic integration, which is now more important."

While many cities use cultural exchanges to boost economic activity, Eindhoven in the Netherlands went the other way. The city has built close ties with Nanjing in East China on the back of a business venture by Philips, the global electronics conglomerate, which was founded in Eindhoven.

"The relationship with Nanjing was established because Philips started a joint venture in the city," says Peet Rijken, from Eindhoven's local government. "At the time, Eindhoven was basically a one-company city. This meant that what was good for Philips was good for Eindhoven, because almost all the labor force in the city worked at Philips."

But since then, exchanges between Eindhoven and Nanjing have expanded. Indeed, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the friendship, Eindhoven has gifted Nanjing a park, named after Vincent van Gogh, the famous artist who lived near Eindhoven and is increasingly popular in China. In return, Nanjing will build a Chinese pavilion in Eindhoven, with construction expected to start later this year.

"(The gifts) will function as a window to each others' cities," says Rijken.

At the handover ceremony of the Van Gogh Friendship Park in Nanjing in September 2011, the city's major, Ji Jianye, said the focus of cooperation would be on the economy, technology, modern agriculture, culture and communications. Nanjing, for example, will introduce advanced technology for its flower industry.

Scandinavia is another area of Europe keen on building local government ties with China. In Sweden, the town of Falkenberg (population 40,000) has forged a friendship agreement with Shijiazhuang (population 10 million), capital of North China's Hebei province, taking inspiration from the "ping-pong diplomacy" of the 1970s.

"It began in 2002 as a sister-city arrangement," says Henrik Lundahl from Falkenberg's local government. "Our political leaders wanted to get in contact with China. Falkenberg has a great ping-pong history, so we started with sports."

Since then, agreements have been signed covering table tennis, education and energy. Falkenberg now has a Confucius Classroom.

"It's important for every Swedish municipality to have a broad mind and closely watch international development," Lundahl says. "China is and will be even more important internationally. Chinese culture and philosophy are interesting and give us a new perspective.

"We have much to learn from each other and the more we co-operate, the better it will be. The people of the world must not just learn to co-exist, but to develop a future together."

For Shijiazhuang, little Falkenberg's table tennis tradition made all the difference and paved the way for better understanding.

"The mayor of Falkenberg came to visit a few times, and our middle-school table tennis teams paid return visits to Sweden, and this created a lot of harmony," says Meng Shuo, vice-director of Shijiazhuang Foreign Affairs Office.

Falkenberg has been offering support in environmental protection and energy recycling to its big industrial sister city.

Contact the writers at bartram.david@gmail.com and jixiang@chinadaily.com.cn