China’s rise over the last four decades is, in part, an urban story. Internal migration has played a crucial role in China’s economic and social development, as has experimentation with an array of city-focused governance approaches, including various models of special economic zones. Looking forward, migration to, from, and between cities, as well as regulatory and policy frameworks around everything from artificial intelligence to urban planning, will continue to shape China’s political stability, social resilience, and economic trajectory. These internal changes, and China’s associated rise, are among the most notable historical developments of the past forty years.
These internal shifts are only part of the story of China as a regional and global power, and the urban story is not an exclusively domestic one. China also seeks influence in urban spaces beyond its borders. There is nothing particularly new about regional and global powers seeking to influence urban development beyond their own cities and national borders. In particular, it has been a longstanding practice of empires, from the Roman to the British to that of the Soviet Union. In its own efforts to engage in urban spaces abroad, China has employed some traditional and well-tried tactics. In a 2016 report commissioned by the United Kingdom Government’s Foresight Future of Cities Project, a group of researchers at University College London examined the use of long-standing practices around city-twinning. The number of twin-city relationships held by Chinese cities, they reported, far exceeded those of most British cities. A similar examination of sister-city relationships in the context of Chinese public diplomacy (this one funded, in part, by the US Department of State) also found widespread use of bilateral relationship buildingby Chinese cities. Between 2000 and 2018, according to the authors, Chinese sister cities in the region increased from 440 to 950.
The context of such twinning efforts matters immensely, and the two reports made a couple of crucial points. First, as the UCL team notes, “[T]he Chinese central government holds a tight grip on international relations, including network participation by cities, and twinnings.” This is consistent with a fascinating finding by the more recent study, which concluded that, as an instrument of diplomatic outreach, sister-city relationships are more likely to be developed with cities in countries with which China does not have extensive security or strategic relationships. Rather than building such subnational diplomatic bridges in a decentralized, sometimes haphazard fashion, according to the preferences of individual cities, the city-to-city diplomacy has links to Beijing and moves forward with some strategic sensibility. While city-to-city diplomacy never occurs entirely outside the context of national politics and international relations, and while the purposes and ties between national capitals and city halls does indeed vary by country, the suggestions here are clear: any analysis of the city diplomacy practices of Chinese cities should take into consideration Beijing’s national and geopolitical strategies.
The most important of these strategic frames is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). With a vision stretching out at least at least five decades into the 21st century, the BRI consists of six land and maritime economic corridors touching 70 partner states, two thirds of the world’s population. It is written into the Chinese Constitution, projected to have US$1.5 trillion price-tag, and consists of a number of areas of focus: policy coordination; transport infrastructure; unimpeded trade; financial integration; and people-to-people relationships. While it has increasingly focused on climate change, city diplomacy in practice has long been organized bureaucratically around both commercial and cultural exchange. In other words, when city-diplomacy is considered in the context of the BRI, it should by no means be analyzed only according to people-to-people relationship building.
Importantly, Chinese city diplomacy practices extend far beyond bilateral policy sharing. Cities such as Guangzhou, for example, have begun to view themselves as in the vanguard of China’s moves to open up and experiment, and lead the way in materialisng the BRI’s programme of connectivity. These Chinese cities are also members of globe spanning transnational municipal networks, and participate in the agendas developed by a range of global cities in attempting to engage major global governance issues. This has been done with an eye to bringing best practices and solutions to urban areas in China, but also, as with bilateral engagement, with the explicit intention of extending influence outward. C40 Climate Cities China Buildings Programme (CBP) aims to enable Beijing, Fuzhou, Qingdao, and Shanghai (Changning District) to be able to make rapid advancements in green building standards. The programme overview, written by C40 in collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, notes: “International knowledge exchanges, as exemplified in this launch report, will also be an important feature of the C40 CBP, so as to ensure that best practices from China are highlighted and showcased to the world, and that inspiration from other leading global cities are readily available to an audience of Chinese practitioners.” An important Chinese partnership for another leading city network, Metropolis, is also explicitly bidirectional. The Metropolis Learning Hub in Chengdu, announced in 2019 and supported by Metropolis member cities and the Chengdu Foreign Affairs Office of Chengdu Municipality, seeks to “jointly develop, promote and implement an international learning curricula, onsite learning seminars as well as research works.”
To some extent such Chinese cities are poised between two worlds. As members of or collaborators with such transnational networks, which are designed specifically for global cooperation and knowledge sharing, they suggest an open orientation. At the same time, the Chinese state sees city diplomacy via such networks as another conduit to project state power and policy goals. So where the international activities of cities in transnational networks have established a space for the relative autonomy of cities from states in many Western countries, sometimes in ways that lead to a divergence between city and state, the state/city relationship in China is very much on the state control side of the ledger. Perhaps there is no greater example of this today than the current tensions in Hong Kong, a city tethered between its history as a pre-eminent liberal global city, and its future as part of China’s emerging system.
The cities along the routes of the BRI may well look different from ‘global cities’ shaped by late-twentieth century liberal-inflected globalism, drawing their shapes and disposition from the distinctive forms of Chinese political economy.
 Custer, S., Russell, B., DiLorenzo, M., Cheng, M., Ghose, S., Sims, J., Turner, J., and H. Desai. (2018) “Ties That Bind: Quantifying China’s public diplomacy and its ‘good neighbor’ effect.” Williamsburg, VA. AidData at William & Mary.
Dominik Mierzejewski. (2020) “The Role of Guangdong and Guangzhou's Subnational Diplomacy in China's Belt and Road Initiative,” China: An International Journal.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI