CHICAGO — Mayor Richard Daley's long effort to build ties with the world's second-largest economy seemed to pay off Thursday as Chinese President Hu Jintao made his first visit to Chicago, his only stop outside Washington during this trip.
Hu was expected to focus on economic ties between China and Chicago during his whirlwind overnight visit to the city. Experts said the attention from China has been the envy of other U.S. cities and could mark a gigantic – and profitable – step forward for both parties, despite the sometimes rocky U.S.-China relationship.
Many credited Daley's efforts. The mayor has traveled to China four times since 2004, touting Chicago as a global transportation hub with large manufacturing and industrial sectors friendly to Chinese business.
"Chicago deserves some kudos. It's clear that he's (Daley) cultivated the China relationship and he's learned how to do that very well," said Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. "Mayors and governors around the country, regardless of their politics, see China as a source of potential capital, markets and jobs. So you better be ones looking to have the president of China come here."
Hu planned to attend a Thursday dinner with Daley, Gov. Pat Quinn and business leaders. On Friday, he was expected to visit a unique Chinese language institute Daley helped develop and a Chinese business expo in the suburbs. Daley characterized the visit as a "big, big, big, big, big deal," at a news conference last week.
The retiring Democratic mayor has focused on business and largely stayed away from politics in developing a relationship with China. He went to Shanghai last year to headline "Chicago Days" at the 2010 World Expo. In 2008, he went to the Beijing Olympics to look for lessons for Chicago's 2016 Summer Olympics bid. He has avoided criticizing China for human rights issues and stayed away U.S. manufacturers' claims that China undervalues its currency to make its exports cheaper than U.S. products, contributing to high unemployment here.
In 2006, Daley pushed for the development of the Confucius Institute in Chicago, a language and cultural center that started as a small parent-driven Chinese language program. It's now one of the largest institutes of its kind in North America; about 12,000 Chicago public school students take Chinese and the institute offers community classes and international exchanges for teachers.
While the institute doesn't have direct ties to business, leaders in Chicago's Chinatown say it helps forge a connection.
"It creates a whole generation of younger students and future leaders to understand Chinese culture and language. It will help the business transaction," said Tony Shu, president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. "If you know the language, you'll find it so much easier."
City leaders say Chicago's sister cities program also has helped. Shanghai and Shenyang have been Chicago sister cities since 1985, and Daley has met mayors of both cities. He met Hu at a White House state dinner in 2006, a Daley spokeswoman said.
Tom Bartkoski, a director at World Business Chicago, also said Daley deserves much of the credit for the growing economic ties between China and Chicago.
Chicago-area businesses such as Boeing, Motorola, Abbott and Wrigley have expanded operations in China. On Wednesday, Obama announced new business deals with China worth $45 million, including a highly sought $19 billion deal for 200 Boeing airplanes.
At least 40 Chinese businesses now have operations in the Chicago area, and the number is growing. For example, Wanxiang America Corp., which makes solar panels, has opened plants and a headquarters around Chicago in the last two years.
While Daley deserves much credit for Hu's visit, some experts say it also was a natural progression.
Hu visited much of the West Coast in 2006, with stops in Los Angeles and Seattle. There's also been some precedent for Chinese presidents to see the U.S. president's hometown. In 2002, former President Jiang Zemin went to former President George W. Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch.
Others see the Chicago visit as a bit of a surprise since the Chicago area hardly has the largest Chinese population in the U.S. Roughly 1 percent of the metro area's approximately 9.6 million people are of Chinese descent, according to the U.S. census.
Six other metro areas – New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., Honolulu and Boston – have larger Chinese populations.
Aside from business, Hu's visit was expected to help increase awareness of Chicago and tourism.
"It gives us much greater visibility in China. They remember cultural icons," said Dali Yang, a political scientist and faculty director at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing. "We are at a critical turning point. This is to establish the image of Chicago as that destination in their consciousness."
Daley, who was in Washington for a mayor's conference, declined interview requests before Hu's visit. An election for his replacement is Feb. 22. Candidates include former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.