BEIJING -- Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa might be leaving office at the end of next month, but he nonetheless got a personal audience Tuesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The meeting came in advance of Xi’s scheduled trip to California June 7-8 to meet President Obama.
Xi, who officially stepped into the presidency in March after his elevation last year to head the Chinese Communist Party, has been holding a flurry of diplomatic meetings in recent weeks, but it is somewhat outside protocol for the president to receive a mayor.
"Somehow we really hit it off," said Villaraigosa, recalling that he’d first met Xi last year when the Chinese leader was still vice president and the mayor hosted him in Los Angeles at a Lakers game. He described Xi as a "warm, genuine person, very down to earth."
The mayor is leading a trade delegation sponsored by the Port of Los Angeles, the Tourism and Convention Board and Los Angeles World Airports. During the trip, the delegation announced the opening of a tourism office in Shanghai and the signing of $122-million deal for two Chinese shipping companies to modernize their L.A. port facilities.
Ernest Wooden, president of the Tourism and Convention Board, said that 40% of Chinese trade in the U.S. moves through Los Angeles. The city also is the leading destination in the United States for Chinese tourists, approximately 460,000 of them last year.
Officials said discussions during the trip included expanding the six daily flights from China to Los Angeles, perhaps adding direct flights from second-tier Chinese cities such as Chengdu or Chongqing.
"I'd like to put Mandarin-speaking greeters at LAX," Villaraigosa said.
The mayor said that Xi, in their 50-minute meeting, referred to Los Angeles as the "epicenter" of the U.S-China relationship.
"Los Angeles is the gateway to Asia. As China rises, Los Angeles will benefit disproportionately," the mayor said.
The Chinese state news agency quoted Xi saying during the meeting that "the growth of China-U.S. relations is inseparable from exchanges and cooperation at local levels, and even so with universal participation and the active support of the people of the two countries."
Next month’s meeting between Xi and Obama is to be held at Sunnylands, the landmark estate built by Walter and Leonore Annenberg southeast of Palm Springs. In preparation, Xi met Monday with White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.
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