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The surprisingly vital role sister cities play in Chinese diplomacy

The flags of China, Sweden and the United States wave outside the Volvo Hall at the Volvo plant and headquarters in Torslanda, Gothenburg
REUTERS/Bjorn Larsson Rosvall/Scanpix
Stuck in the middle of two great powers, Europe is beginning to fight back.
By Annabelle Timsit
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In 1743, a trading ship belonging to the Swedish East India Company set sail from the southwestern city of Gothenburg, on its way to China. It nearly returned more than two years later, but sank just 900 meters away from its home port.

More than 250 years later, a group of enthusiasts and marine archeologists built a replica, and sailed it to Shanghai along the ship’s original route. Hundreds of millions of people in both Sweden and China followed online as it made its journey east and back again, this time safely.

Gothenburg and Shanghai are linked by a long history of not just trade, but also research, politics, and culture. Gothenburg is Sweden’s second city, and a hub for industry and shipping. Over the years, it has attracted major Chinese investments, including the 2010 purchase of Volvo, which is headquartered in Gothenburg. In 1986, Gothenburg and Shanghai signed a “memorandum of cooperation.” In 2003, they became “sister cities,” and began working together on all kinds of things, from trade to sports.

But now, all that good will appears to have soured. Gothenburg officials say they will likely let their sister city relationship with Shanghai expire in early May, when it is up for renewal. And that is no small thing.

For China, sister city arrangements are much more than just an extra flag at the local airport. They are an important component of Chinese diplomacy. They help establish cultural links by encouraging student exchanges, art and language residencies, and cultural performances at the local level. And they have become especially important to China’s signature foreign policy, an infrastructure investment project called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Last year, the state-run outlet China Daily quoted Li Xiaolin, president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, as saying that “Sister city relations play an important role in boosting cooperation and exchanges among Chinese and foreign cities under the framework of the BRI.” According to that same article, Chinese cities have paired up with more than 700 cities around the world, all of them involved in the BRI. Beijing alone is sister cities with no fewer than 21 capitals of countries that have signed on to the BRI.

“Town-twinning,” as it’s also called, clearly plays a role in China’s broader geo-strategic ambitions. It’s no wonder, then, that as Europe grows more wary of its relationship with Beijing, seemingly innocent sister city partnerships get caught in the middle. It comes at a price, said Sylvia Schwaag Serger, deputy vice-chancellor of Lund University. “As international relations get more conflict-ridden, you always have to think, what are the channels of communication that you want to protect? And I think culture is a really important one,” she said.


In a recently-published report (pdf) on the 17 + 1 policy framework, which unites China and a group of Central and Eastern European nations, the research group China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) found that sister city arrangements are a key way for Beijing to bridge cultural and business ties.

The report found that “education and culture seem to be the success stories” of China’s efforts to increase its footprint in the region. The overall goal “is to establish a friendly—or at least in some countries, friendlier—environment for Chinese interests,” said Ivana Karaskova, a coordinator for CHOICE.

In a 2017 blog post, the Australian consulate-general in Chengdu, China, wrote that being paired with a Chinese city can give locals a leg up because “Chinese culture highly values relationships and trust.” The consulate-general goes on to say that “your city having a counterpart in China may be able to help you open doors for your business” by making it easier to obtain local permits for investment projects.

But all that’s only true, it seems, so long as the business relationships are fruitful and the politics are friendly. Once things start to go bad, sister city arrangements suffer.

In Czechia, Beijing canceled its sister city agreement with Prague after the city council approved a similar agreement with Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. Prague’s new mayor had refused to commit to the “One China”policy, under which China claims Taiwan as its own, though the ruling Communist Party has never had sovereign control over the territory.  

Meanwhile, in Sweden, relations with China began to deteriorate in 2015 when a Chinese-born Swedish bookseller, who published salacious tales of officials in the Chinese Communist Party, went missing and mysteriously surfaced in China. Chinese authorities, despite lobbying from Sweden, sentenced him to 10 years in jail for “providing intelligence” overseas. This set off a chain reaction of diplomatic spats between Stockholm and Beijing.

Now, some Swedish cities have started to rethink their Chinese partnerships. In the past year, the cities of Linköping, Lulea, and Vasteras (paywall) have ended official cooperation deals with Guangzhou, Xi’an, and Jinan. And the municipality of Vara is reportedly also considering ending its sister city agreement with Huangshan.

Gothenburg’s threat to let its sister city arrangement with Shanghai lapse, however, is even more significant, said Björn Jerdén, head of the Asia Program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Gothenburg has a history with Shanghai, and is the heart of Sweden’s economy and China’s investments in the country. That’s why, in a recent, combative interview (link in Swedish) with Sweden’s second-largest daily newspaper, China’s vociferous ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, said if Gothenburg decided to end its ties to Shanghai, “it would have consequences.”

China is not the only country that values—and politicizes—these kinds of local agreements. In 2018, the city of Osaka ended its 60-year relationship with San Francisco after local officials recognized a statue of Japan’s “comfort women” erected in Chinatown as public property.  

Cultural deficit

China’s diplomats are unlikely to take kindly to a wave of canceled sister city agreements in Europe, especially given their efforts to fight the growing narrative that China’s mismanagement of the novel coronavirus caused it to spread globally. Several European countries, and now the European Commission, have called for an investigation into evidence that Chinese authorities initially covered up the virus.

Ending a sister city agreement doesn’t necessarily mean that all ties between the two cities stop. Gothenburg, for example, has other agreements with China, including the Port of Gothenburg’s agreement with the Port of Shanghai, and various funding and research deals between universities.

Still, the loss of a major cultural link between two far-away countries that are now in a diplomatic standoff is a shame, according to Schwaag Serger. Without cultural interactions, “we leave it to politicians to explain how other countries are working.”

“It sounds cliché, but I really think you can’t underestimate the importance of understanding each other better, and culture is one of the most important means for understanding others, and therefore it fills a very important function.”

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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