The Great Oakland Panda Hunt 

The search for increased international trade sometimes leads city officials into very exotic places--China's Wolong Giant Panda Preserve, for instance

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The bustling coastal city of Dalian is a metropolis of five and a half million people and the largest export harbor in China; in 2002, it will celebrate its twentieth year as Oakland's sister city. The delegation is here to reaffirm that decades-old friendship and to build the relationships that bring business; in fact, Oakland officials won't mention the panda project at all when they meet with top-ranking Dalian officials.

The reception here is positive from the very moment the delegation steps off the plane. First there's Chang, looking dapper and refreshed; he's followed by fellow councilmember De La Fuente, whose irrepressible wit keeps us supplied with one-liners. His jokes seem always to be especially appreciated by Oakland lobbyist Lily Hu, who was invited along not only for her bilingual skills and her ties to potential donors, but also, I suspect, for her easy sociability. City Manager Bobb brings his own slightly acerbic brand of humor, as well as his energetic young assistant, Leisl Griffith. Oakland's Community and Economic Development Agency chief, Bill Claggett, who looks ready for business, rounds out the group. We're also joined by Jacob Robfogel, a former aide to Chang who now lives the ex-pat life in Bangkok and occasionally does consulting work for his old hometown. He will serve as translator, organizer, and jack-of-all-trades for this trip. An air-conditioned van whisks everyone off to the hotel in no time--thanks to the police escort that accompanies the delegation for the rest of our time in Dalian. As a police car leads the way, driving on the wrong side of the road when traffic blocks our path, De La Fuente gleefully eyes the flashing lights and intermittent siren ahead of us and asks Bobb with a chuckle if he could kindly arrange this kind of welcome each time the council president arrived at the airport back home.

The colorful, modern face of this seaside town begins to reveal itself on the broad boulevards that lead downtown. We pass large green squares complete with bold public sculptures, shiny new shopping complexes, and unit after unit of new housing. There are very few of the squat, jumbled courtyard buildings that give other Chinese cities like Beijing much of their character. Only one hundred years old, Dalian is well-planned and, for the most part, exquisitely manicured. Li Ning, the winning young administrator from the foreign affairs office who serves as our local interpreter, points out a 20,000-square-meter Wal-Mart shopping center; other parts of the city boast American- style housing subdivisions.

Dalian has been designated a "special economic zone" by the Chinese government, allowing it to welcome foreign investment and manufacturing. It could represent a significant piece of the growing Pacific Rim trade that Oakland is eager to capture. "China is going to be one of the largest growth opportunities for Northern California, as it goes into the WTO," says Clement Chin, senior manager of marketing and business development for the Oakland port. "A lot of the businesses in Oakland, and Northern California, are really tied to trade, to the export market." Even as the port ramps up for major expansion, competition is growing fiercer. "We're going to expand our port to twice the size, so we have to work hard to make sure we have lots of containers coming in," says Chang. "If we don't work on it, someone else will, like Southern California or Seattle."

Li and the Foreign Affairs deputy director, Zhao Wenhuai, have carefully arranged a detailed itinerary for the group, with meetings and banquets scheduled throughout our day. But there will also be a plentiful break at the five-star hotel for R&R--and, of course, an obligatory change out of the stretchy comfort clothes that only Americans wear, and into suits to match our Chinese hosts, who seem to work in business blue even on the weekend. (For Bobb and De La Fuente, business dress usually means rather hip, modified cowboy boots--a sartorial touch they're both proud to display.) Leisl Griffith and I take this opportunity to pop out for a quick tour of the arts-and-crafts exchange next door, and when we're just a minute late to meet in the lobby at the appointed time, I cringe. Bobb is even tardier and he doesn't cringe in the slightest, but our Chinese hosts are noticeably nervous. They've arranged a meeting with the mayor of the city, the newly elected Li Yongjin. Once we pile in the van, our caravan sweeps past the soldiers who stand guard in front of all official buildings in China, and pulls up to the very front of City Hall. Hurrying upstairs to a meeting room lined in a thick, soft carpet, we find name cards marking seats for each of us on couches laid out in two facing rows, with De La Fuente and Li side by side at the head of the room.

The formal exchange of speeches goes well: both Li and De La Fuente, speaking through interpreters, stress cooperation, mutual respect, and the need to build on years of friendship. (Throughout our two days in Dalian, these formal exchanges with top officials take on a certain rhythm, and De La Fuente certainly is into the swing of it.) After a review of the long friendship between the two cities and a look toward the future of growth and cooperation, there is a brief trade-off of compliments and self-depreciation. De La Fuente tells a Chinese city official that Oakland has much to learn from the well-planned intersections and balanced roadside parks of Dalian. "Oh, no," the Dalian official protests, "We are very disorderly." When De La Fuente's attempt at a light-hearted return--"If this is disorder, we'll take your disorder any day"--proves too much for the young translator, lobbyist Lily Hu, wise in the ways of American irony, steps in to smooth the whole thing over.

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