SHANGHAI — China's ambassador left Washington in a huff. The U.S. ambassador to Beijing has returned home. A Chinese general cut short his recent goodwill military visit to America. But the mayor of Shanghai is still visiting California on a trade tour next week, offering hope that even if the two nations don't always see eye to eye, at least they keep sight of certain things they have in common.
"This is not a political question. It is a city-to-city relationship, not a state-to-state relationship," Mayor Xu Kuangdi said of his long-planned visit to San Francisco from July 15-22 to commemorate their 15th anniversary as sister cities.
But he admitted that his cancellation of the New York part of the trip "can be interpreted" as a protest over the Clinton Administration's recent decision to allow Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit his alma mater, Cornell University, in Upstate New York.
China considers Taiwan a renegade province, and relations between Beijing and Washington have sunk to new lows as Chinese leaders simmer over Lee's visit. Things were made worse on June 19, when China detained Chinese American human rights activist Harry Wu and denied him contact with U.S. Embassy officials.
Ironically, some of China's harshest critics have been members of Congress from California. Among them: Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat who has been sharply critical of China's human rights practices, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who complains about Beijing's treatment of what it calls the autonomous region of Tibet.
Xu's visit to San Francisco is a testament to the strength of cultural ties between two port cities. Many of San Francisco's ethnic Chinese originally came via Shanghai.
But keeping his date in California doesn't necessarily signal a warming of China's attitude toward the United States. Xu's canceled trip to New York was to have included meetings with chief executives of some of the United States' biggest companies.