January 20, 2011 / 6:29 AM / 7 years ago

Why Chicago? China's ties to Obama's hometown

CHICAGO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama joked on Wednesday that Chinese President Hu Jintao was brave to visit Obama’s hometown of Chicago in January -- the temperature will drop to 2 degrees this week, with brutal winds.

<p>A made in China label is seen on a sweater in Chicago January 14, 2011. REUTERS/John Gress</p>

Of all the garden spots in the United States, why did Hu choose freezing Chicago as the only city he’ll visit outside of Washington, D.C. on his brief American trip?

Local business and cultural experts say it was an easy choice. Under Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago has made sustained efforts to attract Chinese tourism and business, as well as promote Chicago business in China.

Chicago is also an educational center, with top schools like the University of Chicago attracting Chinese students. The city has two “Chinatowns” and 12,000 public school students are learning Chinese.

“Chicago has the most diverse economy in the nation, so pretty much what you want to find in America, you’ll find in the Chicago metropolitan area,” said Rita Athas, president of World Business Chicago, the city’s economic development body.

Chicago has had a sister-city relationship with Shanghai and Shenyang since 1985. Daley has been a frequent visitor to China, most recently at the Shanghai World Expo last September.

Hu’s trip will include a visit to Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, a public school and home of the first Confucius Institute, a cultural program, housed in a U.S. elementary or high school.

Chicago’s advantages as a business city include its central location -- it is easy to access from either coast, and there are plenty of direct flights to and from China.

“The Chinese system has gradually understood that it is not just the coasts but that people in the middle of the country are important as well,” said Dali Yang, political science professor at University of Chicago and head of its Confucius Institute.

Over 300 Chicago-area businesses have a presence in China, Athas noted, while China is a big buyer of Midwest crops, automobiles, steel, aerospace equipment and pharmaceuticals.

China also has an intense interest in Chicago culture, said Nancy Tom, head of Center for Asian Arts and Media at Columbia College in Chicago. She organized the “Chicago Days” hip hop show at the Shanghai World Expo, which had the biggest turnout for any live performance at the U.S. pavilion.

Because of Hu’s visit, Tom’s phone has been ringing almost nonstop with inquiries on Chicago art and entertainment. “In a sense, that’s business, too,” she said.

Besides hip hop, what do Chinese people think of first when they think of Chicago? Boeing? Soybeans? Big shoulders? Yang has a ready answer.

“The iconic image of Chicago in China is Michael Jordan,” said Yang.

Editing by Peter Bohan and Eric Walsh

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