Pandemic highlights potential of ‘sister cities’

Donations from Chinese sister cities reach Canada . . .

When COVID-19 ravaged parts of China three months ago, some Canadian cities reached out to help its ‘sister cities’, which are long-term, exchange-based partnerships between two communities in different countries. Markham, for example, raised C$20,000 in a dinner event for its sister city of Wuhan. Now, as the outbreak in China wanes, some Chinese cities are reciprocating. The City of Lethbridge announced that it received 12,000 surgical masks to its frontline staff from its sister city of Anyang, becoming the latest Canadian recipient in a series of similar donations from Chinese sister cities and twinning organizations. The donations went to at least a dozen Canadian municipalities and communities in four provinces: B.C., Alberta, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Gestures came amidst controversy elsewhere . . .

While some Chinese cities are donating to their international partners, others have become entangled in diplomatic spats. On April 25, the Swedish city of Gothenburg decided against renewing its 34-year-old sister city relationship with Shanghai, joining three other cities in Sweden to cut ties with Chinese cities over flaring tension between Stockholm and Beijing. The Australian city of Wagga Wagga also voted to end its relationship with its sister city of Kunming, citing “death and destruction” caused by China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, though it later reversed the decision. These episodes cast doubt on whether ‘people-to-people’ relations can stay insulated from national and international politics, particularly when sister cities become an extension of foreign policy, as is the case for China.

Untapped potential?

Sister cities are sometimes seen as largely cultural affairs with little material benefit, or even proxies to political disputes between their countries. But the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how they can take on an important role. A good sister city relationship builds international networks of local partners and know-how, which become especially valuable during crisis-induced market disruptions. As Canada competes against other countries to secure essential medical supplies, relationships formed through sister cities can not only lead to offers of donation, but also help local governments and businesses navigate unfamiliar environments in countries such as China. More than a hundred Canadian cities and towns have sister or friendship city relationships with Chinese cities and districts, but so far few have reached out to seek support. Now may be a good time to lean on those relationships.