Illustration: Liu Xiangya/GT
Last week, the top leaders of China and the US met in San Francisco, while Chinese President Xi Jinping also attended a welcome dinner by friendly organizations in the US. These events reminded me of the days when I first visited this city and worked on friendly China-US exchanges decades ago.
In 1991, I participated the Chinese Cancer Specialists Delegation to the US as one of the translators. Organized by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, it was a reciprocal visit to the American Cancer Society, who had made a very successful visit to China. I felt very proud to become a successor of friendly China-US exchanges.
San Francisco was our last stop during the two-week visit. After academic discussions, the delegation was invited to a US cancer doctor’s villa at the beach in the Bay Area for lunch. The warm family-style gathering was highlighted by a gift sent by the Chinese delegation to our host before departure – a snuff bottle, a Chinese handicraft with exquisite paintings inside, which served as a symbol of friendship between the peoples of China and the US.
This was my first visit to the US and San Francisco, and it has remained the most impressive. I was quite amazed by the enchanting scenery of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, the old-fashioned cable car, hilly streets with cars parked on both sides, and the large Chinatown. At that time, it was only 10 years after China began its reform and opening-up movement, so China still lagged behind the US in terms of the economy, infrastructure and people’s living standards. However, the past 30 years have seen great changes taking place in China and infrastructure and people’s livelihoods have improved. Ten years ago, a friend of mine who had immigrated to the US from Shanghai said enviously, “The Shanghai airport is so beautiful” after coming back to her hometown.
Since 1991, I have guided several other Chinese delegations to visit the city for local governments, banking and people-to-people exchanges. Meanwhile, I have also received quite a number of US delegations to visit China with some of the members coming from San Francisco.
In 1997, we were honored to receive in Beijing the then mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, who was also the first black mayor of the city.
Shanghai and San Francisco set up a sister city relationship in 1980, becoming one of the earliest pairs. As Brown’s first stop was Beijing, the head and staff of the Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office came to the capital to receive him. At that time, the two cities had made extensive exchanges in many areas, such as the economy, urban development and the arts.
Brown was given a warm welcome in Beijing, where China’s top leaders met with him at Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of China’s central government, and the vice mayor of Beijing also received him and his delegation. After the leg in Beijing, Brown went on to visit Shanghai, which helped boost ties between the two sister cities.
Yet in the past few years, especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, China-US people-to-people contact and exchanges have obviously dwindled. According to statistics, in 2022, Chinese people’s visits to the US amounted to roughly 370,000. Although this figure was slightly higher than the previous two years, it was a drop of 2.83 million compared with that of 2019.
In fact, the more difficult the bilateral relations are, the more frequent people-to-people’s interactions should be. It is good to see that in the second half of 2023, such friendly contact has resumed with several historical events taking place.
In late October, California Governor Gavin Newsom paid a visit to China, including Shanghai, becoming the first US governor to come to China over the past four years. Newsom was born in San Francisco, and was once mayor of San Francisco.
When meeting with Newsom in Beijing, President Xi stressed: “The foundation of China-US relations was laid by our peoples,” and “the future of China-US relations will be created by our peoples.”
In his visit to Shanghai, both sides expected that more substantial exchanges in IT, biological medicine and smart manufacturing would be conducted between Shanghai and California, so the sister city relationship will surely help promote these exchanges among the two peoples.
As far as I remember, the number of sister cities was around 200 in the early 2000s, but at the Fifth China-US Sister Cities Conference held in early November I learned that the figure has increased to 284.
President Xi has laid a strong emphasis on youth in promoting China-US friendship. He announced at the welcome dinner in San Francisco that “China is ready to invite 50,000 young Americans to China on exchange and study programs in the next five years to increase exchanges between the two peoples, especially between youth.”
It is also hopeful to see that since 2008, China has ranked at the top in the number of students studying in the US for 15 consecutive years, according to a report by China Radio International.
Although after so many years, my memories of some specific events during my previous visits to the US have become vague, anything related to San Francisco remains indelible. San Francisco has always been one of my favorite cities in the US, and when I recall it now, I am very proud of having done my bit for China-US people-to-people friendship.
Today, China has become the second largest economy in the world, and people’s living standards have dramatically improved. There are many more Chinese people who can afford to take a trip to the US and have more opportunities to visit San Francisco. In this sense, compared with 30 years ago, people-to-people diplomacy should be intensified in a more extensive and diversified way.
Facts show that the two peoples have always shared the will and need to enhance interactions, they just “lacked a driver of growth” as an expert said. Therefore, President Xi’s visit to San Francisco has given an impetus to and laid a good foundation for these exchanges, so China-US people-to-people friendship should take advantage of this opportunity to forge ahead. Over the years, San Francisco has been a witness and promoter of these friendly ties, now it has become a new starting point in this endeavor.
The author is a freelancer writing for the Global Times. email@example.com