When Gavin Newsom was the Mayor of San Francisco, he had opportunities to practice his Chinese-speaking skills beyond simply attending Chinatown banquets. The former mayor and current California governor has been to China multiple times, pushing for strengthened cooperation between two of the world’s biggest economies.
Along with First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the governor is now set to visit China again next Monday on a weeklong high-profile trip that comes amid continued geopolitical tensions between the world’s two superpowers.
Although the Newsoms will depart mere weeks before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation’s annual conference brings more world leaders and CEOs to San Francisco than at any time since 1945, the visit is relatively narrow in scope. According to the Governor's Office, he will focus on climate matters and advancing cultural, technological and economic collaboration between California and China.
In late 2005, about two years after he became mayor, Newsom made his first visit to mainland China, along with the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of San Francisco becoming sister cities with Shanghai.
During his two terms as mayor, Newsom was well aware that one-quarter of San Francisco’s population are people of Chinese descent. So bonding with the ancestral homeland of many of his constituents seemed like a logical political move for someone with Newsom’s goals and apparent ambitions for higher office.
“That trip really opened his eyes,” said Bill Lee, who was San Francisco’s city administrator at the time and attended the 2005 trip. “He got to see the real China for the first time.”
Newsom even met with Jiang Zemin, a former mayor of Shanghai who later became the President of China—thanks to an introduction by Feinstein, who started the sister city program in 1980 when she was mayor.
The trip triggered some governmental changes in San Francisco. After returning from China, Newsom directed funds toward an effort to welcome businesses from China to the city. Established in 2008, the ChinaSF initiative has since evolved into GlobalSF.
Darlene Chiu Bryant, the head of GlobalSF, recalled that Newsom was very surprised to see how economically developed China had become.
“He was so impressed,” Chiu Bryant, then the chief deputy communication director and Chinese interpreter for Newsom during the trip, told The Standard. “He then said, ‘I will set aside $2.1 million to start a China desk.'"
Newsom visited China twice more as mayor: in 2008 for the establishment of ChinaSF and again in 2010 for the Shanghai Expo. He became the state’s lieutenant governor in 2011 and governor in 2019. The total number of times Newsom has visited China in his official capacity is unclear.
Ahead of APEC, the priority is crystal-clear for a governor who recently signed legislation mandating companies disclose their greenhouse-gas emissions.
“The world’s fate depends on climate action in California and China,” the Governor’s Office said in a release.
Newsom is also considered friendly to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, which was recently targeted in an attack by a Chinese man who drove a car through the building. During a month when China is celebrating its national day, Newsom sent a congratulatory letter to the consulate emphasizing shared economic interests. In 2013, the consulate noted that Newsom visited the consul-general and “cherished the deep friendship.”
Another big question mark is whether Newsom will meet with President Xi Jinping, who has not yet confirmed whether he’s coming to APEC. Newsom is part of the honorary host committee for this much-anticipated world leaders’ summit, and it’s possible that he will help promote the event in his hometown during the trip.
According to Politico, Newsom will visit six Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Yancheng and Hong Kong. His spokesperson declined to say whether a Xi-Newsom meeting is happening. But observers are looking forward to that.
“If Gavin wants to become president," said Lee, "he needs a strong relationship with Xi.”
Han Li can be reached at email@example.com