“China’s President in Tacoma: Why it Matters”
On December 2, 2015, UW Tacoma’s Institute for Global Engagement and the Division of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs, in collaboration with the World Affairs Council Tacoma (WACT) inaugurated the “Global Classroom” series, featuring Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Port Commissioner Connie Bacon.
Left to Right: Assistant Professor William McGuire, Port Commissioner Connie Bacon, Mayor of Tacoma, Marilyn Strickland
Why did Chinese President Xi Jinping visit Tacoma? What are the economic, cultural and political implications for our region of this unprecedented attention from a rising world power?
The speakers addressed these and other questions in a conversation moderated by UW Tacoma Assistant Professor William McGuire in UW Tacoma’s Jane Russell Commons to a packed audience of around 100 students and community members. The interactive speaker series is intended to explore in-depth issues of global significance and their local implications. These quarterly, moderated conversations will feature leading practitioners and scholars, who will shed light on the complexities of global events and help us understand the influence of these events in the South Sound.
One of the most important themes to emerge from the conversation is that the world economy and geopolitics are changing quickly and Tacoma is earning its place on the international stage. This is evident from the growing trade flows between the Port of Tacoma and China, as well as the Chinese investments in Tacoma’s infrastructure, industry, and real estate.
President Xi’s visit was a rewarding experience for our city and region. Acknowledging the high geopolitical stakes in hosting President Xi, both the Mayor and Commissioner emphasized the importance of cultural awareness and building strong personal relationships.
President Xi had visited Tacoma earlier, in 1993, when he was a Communist Party official in the Chinese port city of Fuzhou. Commissioner Bacon played a pivotal role in Xi’s first visit and went on to visit Fuzhou herself. These visits laid the foundation for the sister-city agreement between Tacoma and Fuzhou.
“Relationships are everything” Bacon said. “In building lasting relationships, you need to develop cultural competency, genuine interest in other people’s values, and treat them with dignity and respect.” Cultural competency will be the best tool to navigate in a global, interconnected world. Relationships are not one-hit wonders, but are cultivated over years. We can have lasting peace by building it one relationship at a time.
In Chinese culture, important visits typically involve an exchange of gifts. Mayor Strickland mentioned that President Xi was given a jersey from the Lincoln High School football team, which entailed an extensive discussion about its color, its number and so on. The jersey with gold stripes and the number 1 was a winner. President Xi reciprocated by inviting 100 Lincoln High School students to China.
The speakers also commented on the important economic relationship between the US and China, and the importance of this relationship to Tacoma. The Commissioner and the Mayor downplayed concerns from those who argued this is not an equitable relationship, for example citing concerns about the trade deficit. They pointed out that trade and investment is mutually beneficial for both nations.
The speakers highlighted the industrial, residential, and retail projects being developed in Tacoma by Chinese investors. Among the EB5 investments, a Shanghai-based developer is planning to build a hotel with mixed residential and retail space next to the convention center. A company from Wuhan is planning another mixed residential-retail development in the brewery district.
Although there may be concerns about issues such as religious freedom, democracy, and human rights in China, the speakers argued that we need to be mindful of our own problems before preaching change to others. They also agreed that the best way to change others is to engage with them—by showing a willingness to learn from their virtues and encouraging them to learn from our own.
Mayor Strickland emphasized the importance of President Xi’s invitation to 100 Lincoln High School students to travel to China next year. This is an opportunity for these students to become students of the world—to learn, to navigate, and to change the world.
Left to Right: Assistant Professor William McGuire, Port Commissioner Connie Bacon, Mayor of Tacoma, Marilyn Strickland, Professor Turan Kayaoglu
During the question and answer period, several people in the audience raised concerns about the Chinese-funded methanol plant proposed by Northwest Innovation Works that will be located on the Tacoma Tideflats. The multibillion dollar plant will convert natural gas to methanol that will then be shipped to China, where it will be converted into olefin, which can then be used to make plastics. One concern is that this will require substantial amounts of water and power. It also poses environmental risks, if there is a methanol leak at the plant. Commissioner Bacon argued that the environmental risks were minimal, the plant would provide employment opportunities, and increasing demand for utilities will allow Tacoma utility providers to exploit economies of scale -- potentially leading to lower prices. The members of the public who spoke were not convinced, and the Mayor offered to host a forum devoted specifically to a discussion of the plant.The Q&A session was lively and far-reaching, and ultimately was brought to a close before a number of attendees had the opportunity to ask questions. Guests were encouraged to linger after the close of the program to engage with the speakers and other attendees, and many did so. It proved to be an animated and provocative evening, and a great way to launch this new collaborative program between the Council and UW Tacoma.