Imagine this: A high school parking lot in Irvine, a small city in southern California. It’s the mid-1990s and Shanghaiist, who in his wildest dreams had never thought he’d grow up to be a blogger, is busy scraping a faux-“handicapped” sticker of a stick figure in a wheelchair smoking a bong off his car. So this is what teenagers do to relieve their boredom in the O.C. (Orange County or 橙县).
Flash forward to 2006 and Irvine has found itself as the center of a diplomatic brouhaha because they signed a sister-city agreement with Xuhui district in Shanghai. Not the mayor, but a staffer signed this agreement, which seemed innocuous, but one of whose conditions was that Irvine uphold the one-China policy, even though Irvine has been a sister city of Taoyuan, Taiwan since 1990 and most of the Chinese people in Irvine are from Taiwan. They were understandably sensitive about this issue in a way that isn’t immediately obvious to most Americans.
When the news of Irvine’s Shanghai sisterhood broke in late May, it caused a public uproar among the local Taiwanese population. Mayor Beth Krum first attempted to spin it and play it off, but as of yesterday announced that Irvine will continue to honor the agreement with Xuhui district, minus the one-China stipulation which would have barred Irvine officials from visiting Taiwan, celebrating Taiwan’s “national day” or else mentioning Taiwan in any way not consonant with US-China foreign policy. They are waiting for the response from Xuhui — if the Shanghainese cannot accept it, then Irvine will terminate the agreement.
How did this strange turn of events come about? The OC Weekly reports that this was the doing of one Henry King:
Henry King, the Shanghai native and husband of Councilman Larry Agran’s executive aide, allegedly usurped the foundation’s authority, embarrassed Irvine, and—improbable as it sounds—set the stage for an international confrontation over Taiwan.
Dunning charges that King, a foundation member, secretly communicated with Communist officials in China before and during the trip, refusing repeated requests to inform fellow delegates; unilaterally crafted a roster for the trip, inviting one person with no ties to the Sister Cities program; and shifted the agenda in Shanghai to include business unrelated to sister city matters.
It was King who supposedly orchestrated this whole thing, leading to the signing of the sister cities agreement:
Perhaps most egregious, King allegedly helped dictate scheduling, at one point putting himself and Irvine city staffer Valerie Larenne in a room alone with Tina Tian, a representative of Shanghai’s Xuhui district. As King stood by without complaint, Tian demanded that Larenne, Irvine’s Community Partnerships Administrator, sign a bizarre agreement. The contract, which requires nothing from the Chinese, demands that Irvine officials follow Beijing’s lead, and treat the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan, as a breakaway province of the People’s Republic of China.
Larenne signed—and then allegedly said nothing of the agreement to her bosses for more than a week.
This is the not the first time something like this has happened, according to this Chinese report. Being part of Sister Cities International, as Irvine and Shanghai are, means that you have to play by the rules — and that is where foreign policy comes in.
Is there something else behind this? The OC Weekly reports that there are some shady dealings behind the whole thing, money being funneled from Shanghai to Irvine for large parks that would contain extensive “Chinese gardens” and the like. What we want to know is how a district, even one as large as Xuhui, can enter sister city agreements.
Also on Shanghaiist:
Shanghai: City of sisterly love
Photo of Irvine protesters and the black visor of death from Freemanspot’s Flickr page.