ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability

European cities to be approached were chosen through the list of ICLEI members. From the twenty cities initially contacted, the overall number of cities who participated in the survey was twelve. With the exception of a few cases, the surveys were mostly conducted through phone interviews. Determining the obstacles, weaknesses, expectations, and needs was the primary objective throughout the partnership.

In general, partnerships have two goals : one to produce practical and economically valuable results, and the other to foster better international relationships through formal authority contacts. A majority of the cities included in this study are represented in the first group. In both cases, external private actors are generally involved especially as a source of substantial funding which are not normally available through public administration streams.

Main features of the partnerships

The Memorandum of Understanding is often used as an initial informal settlement for collaboration. This normally follows an initial period of informal relations when authorities and the business sector seek common grounds of interests to cooperate in. A number of partnerships began in the Eighties and early Nineties when the Chinese first opened their domestic markets to the Occident. A similar trend is occurring during the current decade and plenty of new similar agreements between China and Europe are gaining ground. Therefore, strong European-Chinese exchange seems to coincide during two peaks when international exchange became mutually beneficial for both parties involved. The last opening period coincides with the China regionalization strategies incorporated into the country’s Ninth (1999 – 2000) and the Tenth (2001 – 2005) Five Year Period Plans which encouraged the development of a concurrence model and thus the contact with foreign markets. Cities that didn’t elaborate any partnerships in the past years are now seeking to develop binding relationships with Asiatic local governments. This is easily explained by the fact that, besides being seen as a prestigious feature for the local administration from an institutional point of view, these partnerships are highly considered by business stakeholders, as a sign of presence on the international market.

Original contacts between cities are usually a consequence of independent initiatives rather than the result of fairs, conferences or congresses. It is often the Chinese cities which are interested in creating a network in Europe so that in most cases they are the ones to give the first boost for partnership proposals. Shanghai, which has established relations with strategic financial and commercial spots such as Milan, Hamburg, Barcelona and Basel, gives us a good example of how it is considered of vital importance to develop stable contacts with cities from several European countries. In this regard, the Shanghai Expo 2010 represents a perfect occasion for revising or making new trading or governmental agreements. Often also partnership’s trips costs are afforded by the Chinese city in order to give a substantial contribution for the maintenance of the partnership (see the case of Zürich).

Local authorities often act, through different inference levels, as facilitators for putting in contact business and research sectors which, after that, are able to start an autonomous collaboration agenda. Different strategies are used by local authorities in involving different actors in the relationship which can be summarized roughly in the following three groups :

Basel and Aalborg are two examples of the first kind of strategy, focused mostly on involving the private sector, which in many cases is now running its private interests almost autonomously in these cities. In both cases the involvement of citizens is still considered prime. Students and experts exchange will be further developed in order to realize a more wide knowledge about Chinese culture. While this more independent approach is positive regarding the level of involvement of non public sectors, there is a risk of the involved cities losing contact with what is going on and being cut out from the commercial relations that are being established between both cities. This aspect will be further discussed when obstacles come upon during the partnerships will be considered.

Still regarding the private relevance in partnerships relation, it is worthwhile to mention the strategy of Barcelona in keeping the contacts with Shanghai, its twinned city. Although the importance of business activities is considered primary, the role of the local administration is maintained by creating a specific entity, such as ACC1Ó, the Catalan agency for competitiveness and the Spanish Institute for Foreign Commerce (ICEX). This partnership is pretty recent, so that further comment on the efficiency of the cooperation cannot yet be elaborated.

The experience of the cities of Dresden and Zürich is slightly different compared to the ones described above. Rather than involving the marketing sector, the cities successfully built up a relationship based on the exchange of experts within different research fields. The results obtained are ambitious and based on high profile projects. Thus, the local administrations involved are able to keep track the projects whilst also maintaining a good relation with the private sector. In fact, in several proposals the research activities of institutes, universities or foundations are partially funded by private companies, which use this as a bridge to get in contact with the Chinese market and local governments. The only exception on this rule is given by the city of Berlin where the “Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin” autonomously carries on experts’ exchanges approaching the city administration only in extraordinary cases of need - mostly related to bureaucracy aspects.

A separate discussion shall be done on the Bonn and the Byicirclen experiences. These are specials as they are the only cases where the Memorandum of Understanding states explicitly for a non-invasive cooperation from authorities. The philosophy of the cities of Bonn and of the Danish municipalities instead is to involve, as far as possible, schools and associations and all other successive initiatives.

Topics addressed

The main spheres of interest for collaborations concern sustainable development, business and culture.

Sustainable development is now the principal issue for Chinese cities while, on the other hand, European partners have already undertaken successful measures for supporting it. Urban planning is the most widely addressed and complex theme while, underneath this theme, sustainable transport and energy saving remain on-going priority topics. While the exchange of experts from universities and specific sectors is important, such activities remain under the auspices of administrative competence.

Aalborg, Hamburg, Zürich, Amsterdam, Bonn and Barcelona administrations all stressed their will to develop this aspect of their partnership. Even though the city of Barcelona has not yet set any specific plan on this topic, it is on the agenda, to be addressed as the partnership develops. The brilliant results achieved by the Zürich administration must also be underlined: within the frame of the “Kunming urban development – public transport master plan project”, this local government worked for the implementation of a more efficient public transport in Kunming.

Waste water management and drainage, clean energy supply and energy efficiency and special waste management are challenges that large-sized Chinese cities must now address. This is where European cities have gained interest in having a greater influence, especially when considering the business opportunities that could result from such endeavors. The case of Aalborg and its “Sustainable Waste Handling in Hefei” project is a good example, as it involved a wide range of partners representing the private sector as well as the institutional stakeholders, such as the European and Dutch administrations.

Environmental and biodiversity protection are seldom addressed, underlying the opportunity to take better strategies in this area.

The formation of new business networks is often the primary objective for actors. Public administration is only slightly involved during these initial stages. Chambers of Commerce, financial, and business groups are important external actors. More precise information on the business sector actors working through the European – Chinese partnership is not always available, as their activities are run exclusively from private companies.

However, this research underlined the direction chosen by some of the addressed cities. For example, it is clear that Milan intends to create a business forum suitable for finance stakeholders where local administration will limit its role to that of an external supervisor. Nonetheless the role played by local governments’ official meetings and visits still has a vital relevance. In fact, the representative presence of the city‘s authorities seems to be the basic condition in order to build up any further collaboration. The cities of Basel and Aalborg followed a similar parabola for guaranteeing a fertile ground in which to make their partnership thrive. Especially for Aalborg, the binding agreement between the boroughs created the necessary conditions to maintain the collaboration between Chinese and Dutch private companies in the field of raw materials extraction.

The experience of the city of Berlin in this sense is slightly different and is based more on a legal approach rather than being focused on the purely financial and commercial aspects. For example, a number of Chinese delegations take part each year in specific training courses in Berlin in order to learn what is needed for the start up of new business and commercial activities in Europe.

Although not all of the cities addressed have yet been able to develop the desired trade or financial networks, all of them keep a keen eye on this aspect. In fact, as many of them have underlined, it would be a missed opportunity not to take advantage of the opening of the Chinese market which will affect the future global competitiveness of the European countries. The same perspective is probably also shared from the Chinese side. In fact, the latter is often the one to make the first effort in approaching European local governments.

In all the cases of study, cultural events are a central feature. The organization of exhibitions and concerts are showcases proving that Chinese culture is largely well received :

Most relevant achievements

Depending on the approach of the partnership, key achievements have more or less been based on the creation of numerous cooperation projects. The partnership between Zürich and Kunming, and Aalborg and Hefei are good examples of ambitious projects undertaken under a highly pragmatic approach and a close collaboration between the actors involved. Both the partnerships have been able to accomplish high demanding collaborations and to address some of the thorniest issues in Chinese society.

Through the « Kunming urban development – public transport master plan » the city of Zürich, supported by the Swiss Federal Government, represented by the Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency (DEZA), implemented a more sustainable model for public transportation and urban planning in Kunming.

The plan is expected to be further developed in the next years with the construction of a metro line. A number of papers on the project were afterwards published. In the same way, the collaboration between Aalborg and Hefei gave birth to the “Sustainable Waste Handling in Hefei”, a project aimed to implementing and modernizing the management of clinical waste handling.

In both cases, the partnerships played a fundamental role as facilitators in ensuring the preconditions for an open dialogue and a free exchange of ideas between parties. The positive influence of previous relationships helped to achieve a better understanding, especially during the elaboration process of the projects. High relevance also covered the participation third partners as private capitals suppliers.

A good correspondence between partner cities is deemed to be a basic, prime and necessary condition. Cultural differences normally imply different working styles - i.e. in decision approval processes, timing in communication exchange and transparency towards the tiers of the administrative hierarchy - which can lead to the exacerbation of communication related problems.

The strategy which is generally adopted to avoid misunderstandings is to establish a permanent reference contact in the partner city : this way the person in charge has an overview of the situation and is able to accumulate knowledge on what is the best way to deal with the partner, rather than having several people involved in making the contact with the risk of information loss along the way.

One of the results of our survey is that it is advisable for the contact person to belong to the European administration, rather than rely on a Chinese officer. This is because the European reference functionaries cover a bilateral role, being the link from Europe to and within Chinese local governments. European officers are normally trained for a better understanding of the Chinese society, thus ensuring to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings, for example due to the lack of tact in communicating.

It also ensures a systematic and clear exchange of knowledge, besides the fostering of a spontaneous friendship between collaborators. In this way delegations of Chamber of Commerce, Business Governmental branches or International Bureau can easily provide an efficient and solid help for the reference European municipality. Barcelona is an example of good practices in maintaining the contact in Shanghai not only through the presence of Spanish commercial promotion bureaus in China, but also with the opening of a specific office for this purpose in Shanghai.

On the other hand, the city of Shanghai is present in Barcelona with two International Business School branches. Basel, Hamburg and their partners also have contact with their detached offices, the first directly through the contact person, the latter through the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce co-running office. Equally effective is the method used by the city of Berlin, where communication is only held through e-mail and document exchanges. Especially in this case a good understanding between partners is essential.

School and business trips, regular and / or formal meetings between authorities and cooperation activities assure the basic conditions in order to strengthen existing formal relations. Bycirklen municipalities are very active in this sense. Every year Danish students have the opportunity of taking part in exchange projects in Wuxi. Although the partnership between Dresden and Hangzhou is pretty recent, a prolific exchange of specific research topics is successfully taking place. In Basel it is mainly the business sector which benefits from a Manager Exchange Program.

Obstacles, needs and expectations


From a European perspective, the most interesting results come from determining and then overcoming barriers and obstacles. Nonetheless, there is general consensus among all European-Chinese partnership regarding language barriers, communication obstacles, and administrative organizational differences citing these three areas unanimously as common obstacles to partnership cooperation.

Often, in spite of the presence of professional translators, expert meetings do not occur if a common language - such as English or Chinese - is not shared between all people. Barcelona is an interesting case, where the preferred spoken language is Spanish, and thus a big effort is done from the Chinese side in order to overcome the problem of not having a common language. This willingness is probably due to the fact that Spanish is one of the most spoken languages in the world, besides English and Chinese. Also, Latin America can be considered as the new target market for Chinese investors.

The second issue also concerns communication, but this time regarding understanding independently from which language spoken. Discrepancy in approaching issues is a significant challenge as misunderstandings could easily impede the progress of the program and cause eventual delays. The different perspectives and approaches to activities is an issue, as misconception on how to carry on a previously set up program often arise. Furthermore from an administrative perspective, Chinese municipalities are run in a different way mostly engaging in several bureaucratic levels. The opinion from the city of Zürich clearly points to the Chinese “top-down” political approach in the decisional stage.

The low participation rate from the Chinese in filling new proposals is yet another reason of slowing down the development of activities. This subsequently affects the amount of work to be processed by European offices which takes normally a lot of processing time. The immense size of Chinese municipalities and the large numbers of employed staff also present challenges to maintaining a stable communication path between common reference contacts. Sometimes the high number of people involved in representatives’ delegations cannot be clearly interpreted and the real interest of some of them remains often obscure.

The so called vertical administration is still strongly characteristic of the Chinese bureaucracy, affecting the transparence of team work. This explains why often problems come up during further stages of the projects rather than during the initial ones, where on the contrary the basic ideas seem shared from both sides. Poor coordination between local and central government causes, among other things, weak and ambiguous enforcement of regulations.

From the European point of view, more accustomed to a horizontal model, it is often hard to completely understand such a structured system where the political party component is ubiquitous. The simplest method to avoid undesirable drawbacks is to maintain direct and regular contact within the cities. For this reason European cities tend to position their own national delegation bureaus within the partner city. Hamburg, Zürich and Barcelona are already using this strategy which so far, has only produced positive achievements.

Intra-city and intra-institutional problems

As has already been pointed out, there are also obstacles within the European city structure, mostly concerning the level of collaboration with third actors, normally the private component. In this sense, the partnership between Aalborg and Hefei is not meeting up to expectations from a political point of view. In fact, Aalborg’s administration has the feeling that local governments should work more on the implementation of political commitments in order to attain a more active and harmonious collaboration.

In the case of Basel, main difficulties regard the attitude of the local private sector : an international interaction with the Chinese partner is not being satisfactorily developed by the private sector, where local administration has very limited power over private management decision strategies. Currently, all the city of Basel can do is recommending a more open approach with the Chinese city. In both cases, whilst the private initiative has a strong role in giving life to the partnership, public administration is somehow marginalised, probably due to the different interests of both parties.


This analysis belongs to the file « Europe - China Exchange Platform Survey »