The search began four years ago when a local representative of a city in China took scouting trips to Rockville and Frederick, among other places.
But it was input from a Howard County resident that helped make Columbia the top choice in China’s hunt for an American sister city.
Liyang, a city of 889,000 people in Jiangsu Province — about 150 miles west of Shanghai — will officially become Columbia’s sister city sometime this fall.
It’s the fifth such relationship established by the Columbia Association to promote cultural, educational and artistic exchanges since Columbia first signed on with Cergy-Pontoise, France, in 1977.
In October, a letter of intent to develop a sister city relationship was signed in China by Liyang Vice Mayor Feng Chen and Dick Boulton, vice chair of the Columbia Association’s board of directors, during an extended visit by a 21-person Howard County delegation. Huaquin Xu, mayor of Liyang, will come to Columbia at a date to be determined, to officially seal the agreement.
Boulton said establishing a people-oriented relationship with a city in China makes a lot of sense for Columbia as the Asian country becomes more prominent globally.
“China is growing in importance and its economy is growing rapidly, so it will be advantageous to have a sister city there,” he said.
Boulton believes the Chinese may be more interested in forging an economic exchange than Columbia is, but added that the details of the agreement are still being worked out.
“Liyang is different; it isn’t another Columbia, Maryland,” he said, noting that Columbia’s sister cities in France, Spain and Ghana are also planned communities. “There are a lot of differences, but that will make this an interesting relationship.”
Barbara Kellner, who retired as director of the Columbia Archives in December and is serving as a vice chair on the Liyang Sister City Committee, formed a similar impression about China’s economic interests during the October trip.
“China is very important now and will probably become even more important on the world stage,” she said. “A Chinese expert told us that a sister city relationship is seen as the first inroad to diplomacy.”
During a tour of Liyang, Kellner observed such similarities to Columbia as trees being planted to improve air quality, fledgling technology and biotechnology firms, and schools with engaged students.
The tour also served to highlight “the whole purpose of sister cities, which is creating people-to-people connections,” she said.
“The way to dispel any preconceived notions is by getting to know people,” Kellner said. “We should understand more about the Chinese and this will be an easy way to get into doing that.”
A committee in China chose Liyang from a field of nine cities — including Nanjing, Hangzhou and Dalian — as their candidate for a sister-city match in the worldwide program overseen by the Washington-based Sister Cities International.
“We had a big meeting with city representatives to review their resumes,” said Jun Han, president of Rockville-based Success International Mutual Liaison Services, which was hired by China to find a sister city on the East Coast.
Population, location and education were the top categories being assessed, she said.
“We didn’t want a city that was too big or too small,” Han said. “Columbia was the best match [for Liyang] based on its governing hierarchy, educational and economic levels, and common interests.”
Columbia is a longtime member of Sister Cities International, a nonprofit founded in 1956 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower with “a mission of promoting world peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation — one individual, one community at a time,” according to the organization’s website.
After signing on with Cergy-Pontoise, Columbia established a sister city relationship with Tres Cantos, Spain, in 1990. Nearly a quarter-century passed before a relationship was established with Tema, Ghana, in 2014, and that was followed in 2016 by Cap-Haitien, Haiti.
Han’s attention focused on Columbia after she was introduced to Chao Wu, a Chinese-American who is a member of the Columbia Association village board, is running for a seat on the Howard County Board of Education and writes a blog about Columbia. He is serving as a vice chair on the Liyang Sister City Committee.
Wu, who came to America 15 years ago from Huanggang, points out that exchanges to Columbia could easily include the opportunity to see important neighboring cities.
“When people visit Columbia, they can also tour D.C. and Baltimore and that will help make this program sustainable,” he said.
Officials from both cities agree that size is a relative term when comparing the two cities, considering that China’s 1.4 billion population is nearly four times that of the United States.
“Everything’s bigger in China,” Boulton said. “You can visit the Great Wall on a Sunday and it’s like going to Times Square on New Year’s Eve.”
Columbia and Liyang have more than enough in common to establish a mutually beneficial relationship. Han said she’d like to see the agreement between the two cities go beyond cultural and educational exchanges.
“Columbia provides such rich resources and Liyang is a rich city as well,” she said. “I believe we can help each other equally.”
Han also noted that Chinese parents really like the educational environment of Columbia.
“The environment here is nothing like the [academic] pressure in China, where there are tons of tests and lots of homework to do every day,” she said.
“Tiger moms” — a term for demanding Asian mothers “who ask their children, ‘What happened?’ when they score 95 points out of 100,” she said — are common in China because the women know only students who excel academically will have an edge in the stiff job market.
But what Chinese students don’t get in their academic programs is flexibility, she said.
“Chinese students don’t learn to think or to have their own opinions,” Han said. “We want them to have creative thinking and more freedom.”
Hui Dong, a Liyang native who lives in Clarksville, is serving as chair of the Liyang Sister City Committee. Dong described his hometown as “a beautiful tourism city” with Tianmu Lake and Nanshan Bamboo Forest.
But changes are occurring, he said.
“Liyang has changed a lot since I left in 2000,” he said. “The people there want to have a better life; their income is getting better and they’ve made the environment better.”
Dong is especially pleased there will be a sister city in Liyang since there are about 8,000 Chinese-Americans living in the Columbia area.
“It’s my honor to do something for both of my hometowns,” he said. “This will be a special connection for all of us.”