Sister city relations with China: a Dutch dilemma
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Sister city relations with China: a Dutch dilemma

02 Feb 2022 - 12:25
Photo: Chinese lights festival in Rotterdam in 2013. © Paul Sohier / Flickr
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The debate on how to deal with China is heating up. This question not only concerns national governments, but regional and local politics as well. The sister ties of 35 Dutch municipalities to Chinese cities are increasingly prone to criticism. The city of Arnhem recently broke ties with its sister city Wuhan mainly because of human rights violations in China. Are sister city relations with China a threat or an opportunity?

What is the point of having sister city relations? Historically, so-called municipal twinning across national borders was seen as a way to facilitate cooperation, improve mutual understanding and thereby contribute to global peace. The concept is said to have been around since 836, when the cities of Paderborn (Germany) and Le Mans (France) initiated a ‘sister’ relationship.

The popularity of sister city relationships really took off after the Second World War. For municipal officials in Western Europe, the war served as motivation to ensure that ‘this would never happen again’.

Zwart - Sign downtown Los Angeles with L.A. Sister Cities. David Galvan - Flickr
Sign in downtown Los Angeles with L.A. Sister Cities. © David Galvan / Flickr

The Council of European Municipalities (founded in 1951, and currently known as the Council of European Municipalities and Regions) introduced the concept of jumelage, meaning ‘twinning’ in French. These exchanges were mainly intended to promote closer European integration. ‘City twinning’ was mostly a European phenomenon, until American president Dwight D. Eisenhower also noticed the potential contribution of inter-regional cooperation to global peace and founded the organisation Sister Cities International in 1956.1

The often-made assumption is that sister city ties contribute to more dialogue between parties, reducing chances of conflict or misunderstanding. Twinning is part of a bigger process in which governance not only takes place on the national level, but also on the regional level.

Today, it is almost self-evident for bigger cities to have a sister abroad. Approximately 35 Dutch municipalities have a sister city in China.2

While proportions between these cities are usually extremely unequal – take Velsen, with almost 70,000 inhabitants, which is a sister city of mega-city Qingdao with 9.4 million inhabitants – the two cities enter the relationship based on equality and mutual interest. For example, the Dutch city of Delft, famous for its blue and white pottery, has close ties with China’s porcelain capital Jingdezhen.

Zwart -  Jingdezhen, 20011. Antoine 49- Flickr
Jingdezhen, 2011. © Antoine 49 / Flickr

As China is becoming more and more important as a player in global politics, the Dutch government published a China Strategy in 2019. Following the Dutch government’s concern that the Chinese government does not always operate in a fair and equal way and in accordance with international agreements, the Dutch China Strategy also led to the foundation of the Information and Contact Point (ICP).

The IPC coordinates requests from Chinese municipalities and provinces and assists Dutch municipalities and provinces in answering China-related questions.3  The IPC also helps municipalities and companies to become aware of the possible risks of doing business with Chinese counterparts, as well as to contribute to creating a level playing field.

If global peace facilitated through dialogue was the historical objective for entering into sister city ties, we may ask whether this holds today. Arguably, economic interests have become the main drivers behind city ties with China.

Research has shown that in the case of China, the economic effect of sister city relationships works complementary to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and that both promote Chinese outward foreign direct investment.4

Zwart - Port of Rotterdam, 2011. Frans de Wit - Flickr
Port of Rotterdam, 2011. © Frans de Wit / Flickr

The city of Rotterdam is one of the many examples of the primacy of commercial factors. In 1979, Rotterdam and Shanghai officially entered a sister city relationship. The rationale behind this twinning initiative was clear: what Rotterdam is for the Netherlands, a port city acting as the gateway to the mainland and host to various major companies, Shanghai is for China. Within this sister city relationship, cooperation on trade, industry, science, and culture has thrived.

One of the success stories of this sister city relationship is the establishment of KLG-ITM, a supply chain service joint venture.5  During a business mission to Shanghai in 2019, KLG-ITM signed a memorandum of understanding with the Lanzhou Rail Department, aimed at facilitating road, sea, and air transport between Rotterdam and China.

For Rotterdam cooperation like this is relevant as it allows the city to act as the European hub for business from China, opening doors for business with the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, concrete data on the business effects of the sister city relationship is not available.

The city of Rotterdam now faces the question whether maintaining these ties is in line with the stated values of the municipality

The question remains whether these commercial interests are in line with the interests of the municipality as a whole. In September 2021, one of the parties in the municipal council of Rotterdam expressed that “there are no economic or social arguments to maintain the sister city relationship with a town from a country that perpetuates the inhumane situation of the Uyghurs”.6

The city of Rotterdam now faces the question whether maintaining these ties is in line with the stated values of the municipality. The Municipal Executive of Rotterdam replied to these concerns by arguing that “although there are also risks and challenges (…), the long-term relationship with Shanghai still fits well with the economic priorities as set out in the Rotterdam International Policy Framework 2021-2025 and previous frameworks and programmes.”6

Zwart - Shanghai 2010. philippe - Flickr
Shanghai, 2010. © philippe / Flickr

The example of Rotterdam shows that not just ideological views, but also – and perhaps even mainly – economic interests underpin this sister city relationship. The fact that between 1987 and 2017 the permanent representation of Rotterdam municipality helped over 2000 Dutch organisations build relations with their Chinese counterparts,7  makes this point all too clear.

Another case study offers a different perspective on sister city relationships with China: Arnhem-Wuhan. One of the recent focal points in this relationship has been hydrogen cooperation. Within China, Wuhan is developing itself as a centre of hydrogen technology. For the Dutch city of Arnhem, which brands itself as the national hotspot for energy with a cluster of expertise in this sector, twinning with Wuhan has been considered a great opportunity for businesses.

Zwart - Wuhan, 2016. Jiaxuan - Flickr
Wuhan, 2016. © Jiaxuan / Flickr

HyMove, an Arnhem-based energy company, works together with companies in Wuhan on the production of zero-emission hydrogen-electric buses and trucks.8  According to HyMove’s CEO Theo Hendriks, the Chinese hydrogen market offers the prospect of abundant business opportunities for companies in the Netherlands.9  Still, over the years, the Arnhem-Wuhan twinning project has become the centre of political discussion and controversy.

Human rights activists have lobbied in the Arnhem city council to sever the ties with Wuhan. As a result of this, the city council ended up in a dilemma of politics and trade. The big unknown in this issue is whether quitting the sister city relationship, as the activists recommend, will actually improve the human rights situation in China.

Wuhan officials even asked the Dutch national government why it did not simply stop Arnhem from breaking ties

Even though Amnesty International states that Chinese local governments are valuable actors when it comes to discussing human rights,10 on 21 July 2021, the local council voted to end the twinning relationship. On the morning of the vote, the situation around the city hall of Arnhem became politically tense with Uyghur activists showing images of massive human rights violations in China. Political pressures and ongoing protests no doubt swayed the council to end formal twinning ties with Wuhan.11

As could be expected, this decision upset the Chinese. Wuhan officials even asked the Dutch national government why it did not simply stop Arnhem from breaking ties,11  not realising that under Dutch law the national government cannot possibly make such a demand to municipalities, which have autonomy over these matters.

Zwart - Arnhem, 2016. Gerard Stolk - Flickr
Arnhem, 2016. © Gerard Stolk / Flickr

For Dutch companies with ties to China, this episode illustrates that twinning-arrangements may be useful for business, but hardly essential. As Hendriks from HyMove argued: “It is quite ironic that the [Arnhem] municipality is not supportive anymore, whereas the Dutch embassy in Beijing as well as several trade offices remain strong supporters of the hydrogen cluster.”9  Today, hydrogen cooperation between the Netherlands and China remains in full swing, which demonstrates that the Dutch hydrogen sector has numerous ways to receive governmental support, and that city twinning is far from essential.

Every family has its problems
The recent Arnhem-Wuhan twinning debacle illustrates that city partnerships are under intensified public scrutiny. Critics point to the dramatic human rights situation in China, which is far removed from Dutch standards and values. It is also argued that city-to-city diplomacy could well give credibility and legitimacy to the Chinese approach to human rights, thereby undermining Western humanitarian principles.

This line of criticism has become increasingly vocal across Europe. In the Swedish region Dalarna as well as in several Swedish counties, relationships with Chinese counterparts were discontinued after the Chinese ambassador openly criticised Swedish journalists and politicians.12

Many city councils are now re-evaluating their twinning relationship

This decision did not come easy for many towns. Take the heart of the Swedish car industry, Gothenburg, in which in 2010 Volvo Cars was saved from going under with a 1.3 billion dollars buyout from Zhejiang Geely Holding Group.13 Nevertheless, the municipal relationship with Shanghai that dated from 1986 was severed in 2020, taking for granted the possible economic damage.14

Whereas breaking city ties with China is not on the agenda in most Western countries, many city councils are now re-evaluating their twinning relationships. In Australia, city councils have developed project-based relationships with Chinese cities, rather than formal twinning ties. These project-based relationships add flexibility: at the end of each project the relationship is evaluated, which implies that ties can be ended without all too much political fuss.15

Zwart - Qingdao, 2014. Häni A.H. - Flickr
Qingdao, 2014. The Chinese city of 9.4 million inhabitants is a sister city of the Dutch municipality Velsen with less than 70,000 inhabitants. © Häni A.H. / Flickr

Cities like The Hague also look for alternatives to formal sister city relationships. Sister city relations can be extremely costly, for one because of the personal contact that is required. An alternative can be found in international networks like the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) initiative,16  which offer opportunities to stay connected to multiple cities simultaneously. These networks allow regional governments with similar values to speak with one, strong voice, while the ties are made with the networking organisation and not so much with individual parties.

Growing old together?
Recent debates on city twinning practices with China offer a welcome opportunity for Dutch municipalities to re-evaluate their aims in decentral diplomacy with China: how can they find a balance between dealing with risks, increasing economic opportunities and propagating their human rights standard?

The Dutch government has a clear interest in supporting regional governments in finding this balance. The example of Arnhem has shown that for China, undoing city ties is directly linked to the Dutch government. At the same time, the Dutch China Strategy aims to disseminate Dutch values on human rights in China, where city ties most certainly has a role to play.

If the goal is to contribute to global peace through mutual understanding, terminating sister city relations may not be a wise and constructive decision. Once the door is closed, the possibility to enter into a dialogue on any issue, including human rights, becomes increasingly difficult. This is why Amnesty International understandably makes the case that in a twinning arrangement tackling human rights from a local level is a relevant possibility.10  In this way, sister ties do not have to be a threat but can remain an opportunity in a time of heated debates on China.

Correction: This is a modified version. The original version of this article wrongly stated that Amnesty International advises municipalities to maintain twinning ties so that they can make human rights a central part of the dialogue with those cities. However, Amnesty International does not comment on whether or not to maintain twinning relationships.


Sanne Zwart
Former intern at the Clingendael China Centre