Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Meet our 'estranged' sister

Economic and cultural opportunities await, if Winnipeg wants to renew relations with Chengdu

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As with all journeys, my 12,000-kilometre trip to Chengdu, China, began with a first step -- meeting researcher Ken Klassen at a restaurant in August.

There, he told me he had been travelling to Chengdu for more than a decade, had met his partner, Nuo Yang, there and that they now live in her home city of 14 million for part of the year.

He talked of the staggering size of the city and how its ambitions and stupendous growth represent a great opportunity for Winnipeg, if only the city would seize it, if only it finally would act on a 1988 sister-city agreement Winnipeg signed with Chengdu but had never properly explored or exploited.

Was it ignorance, he wondered, or a failure of civic imagination that explained the small efforts Winnipeg had made to cement a relationship with a "sister" that is a major player in the most explosive economy on Earth.

It wasn't as if the city had not been alerted to the potential.

Seven years ago, Yang laid it all out for Mayor Sam Katz in a report called Going Global, a "road map" to building a self-funding sister-city agency that brought business and cultural interests together to put Winnipeg on the map in Chengdu.

Nuo (pronounced "noir, but without the r") said she was impressed Katz came to her after she presented the report in 2006 to tell her it was a great idea and that he wanted to follow it up. But she never heard from him again. "Sam was so excited. I was sure I'd hear back, but I didn't.

"It's still a good opportunity," she added.

Chengdu is growing by hundreds of thousands of people a year. It's GDP, according the 2013 Chengdu Investment Guide, will be $148 billion. Retail sales will top $70 billion and capital investment will exceed $107 billion.

As staggering as those numbers are, they are being expended in an economy where average annual income is $5,000, which means the reach of the expenditures is many multiples of what can be accomplished in Canada with the same money.

Chengdu, for example, built a 41-kilometre raised bus rapid-transit system in a little over one year -- between January 2012 and June this year -- at a cost of tens of billions.

"This place (Winnipeg) needs to elevate its reputation and international visibility," Yang said. "That's going to benefit everyone."

Yang grew up in Chengdu, where she earned a linguistics degree in English. She landed a job in the Chengdu foreign affairs department, where her work as a translator led to a first meeting with Klassen, an energy conservation researcher whose expertise was and remains very much in demand in China.

In 2004, she followed him to Winnipeg, a city all but unheard of in Chengdu. What little was known was negative -- too small, too cold, too dull.

"Everyone said I was making a big mistake," she said.

What she found was the opposite of what she had been led to believe. Winnipeg was clean, modern, enterprising. Yes, there are mosquitoes in summer, but there are mosquitoes in Chengdu, too. And yes, it can be bitterly cold in winter but, unlike Chengdu, buildings here have central heating.

What she saw was that Winnipeg had much to offer if it could just get over its insularity and insecurity.

She knew, too, that as improbable as it might seem, Winnipeg and Chengdu had been connected since 1988 under a sister-city program established to foster international harmony by linking foreign cities through cultural, educational and entrepreneurial exchanges.

It's safe to say most Winnipeggers have no idea they have an estranged "sister" in China. If they are old enough, some might recall how the relationship began 25 years ago, when then-mayor Bill Norrie signed a sister-city agreement with Chengdu, which welcomed Winnipeg into its family with a gift that was front-page news -- a summer-long visit to Assiniboine Park Zoo by two pandas from Chengdu's famed panda research centre.

It was a public relations coup, evidence, it seemed, of more and better to come for sisters who had a lot in common.

Both, for example, are second-tier cities in their countries, although Chengdu, more than 2,000 years old and with a population of about nine million at the time, clearly was the "big sister," a label that remains ironic, given the Communist history of China.

But little sister Winnipeg, 125 years old and 550,000 people at that time, was wise in the ways of the West, ways that China realized it needed to feed its vast population and give it a quality of life that was as common in the West as it was tantalizing in the East.

At the same time, both cities had things in common -- agriculture, manufacturing to be sure, but also one had a wealth of natural resources the other had a yen for, a developed land-based transportation/manufacturing sector and an undeveloped one, and established post-secondary expertise in western ideas that were being sought in China.

We also have in common markets and tourism centres at the forks of our rivers, bear attractions (pandas and polars), and we're both on plains and require floodways to prevent catastrophe (although theirs is a bit older, built in 200 BC). In other words, both cities had and have something to offer, and the challenge was to seize opportunities. Instead, they merely seized up.

Norrie, the pioneer, lit the fire. Always a Winnipeg booster, Susan Thompson kept the flame alive, but it was already mostly smoke by the time Glen Murray arrived, and today, under Katz, it is difficult to detect any heat in the embers.

Coun. Grant Nordman, who on paper oversees the sister-city program, said it is barely on life-support, kept alive by council more for ethnic than economic reasons.

No councillors visit Chengdu, a city that has grown by five million in the past 25 years, and no mayors lead delegations there.

China currently is driving economic growth from its coast inland, to second-tier cities which, like Chengdu, are more populous than all of Western and Atlantic Canada combined.

The Free Press decided readers deserved to see what they have been missing.

A week-long series of stories will begin tomorrow in 49.8 -- the Free Press magazine section.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 6, 2013 A14


Updated on Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 1:27 PM CST: Fixes photo credit.

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