More than champagne and talk: Sister cities Shanghai, Cork forge a tight bond

Instead of being shown the latest achievements made in high-tech parks in the city, the Irish delegation's Shanghai sojourn included, quite remarkably, visits to a school.

EVERYTHING seems familiar.

Champagnes are uncorked, hands shaken, wine glasses clinked, pleasantries exchanged. But to Patrick Ledwidge, these gestures of bonhomie are more than just a repetition of the etiquette observed at numerous business gatherings he has attended.

As director of the Strategic Planning and Economic Development at the Cork City Council, the Irish politician said he was delighted to renew friendships that have been struck and cemented during his decade-long dealings with Shanghai officials and the municipal government.

He was recently visiting Shanghai and Hangzhou with a delegation from the Irish city of Cork, which included Lord Mayor Tony Fitzgerald and City Council chief executive Ann Doherty.

The visit came three months after the Shanghai delegation, led by Mayor Ying Yong, visited Ireland in July, when both sides pledged commitment to their “sister city” status by aiming to enhance existing partnerships in a range of areas and identifying new opportunities.

For example, one of the main purposes of his meeting with Shanghai Vice Mayor Weng Tiehui was to “explore potential relationships under the WHO agenda” as well as to “seize major opportunities” in the area of primary and community health care that will benefit citizens in both countries, said Fitzgerald.

More than champagne and talk: Sister cities Shanghai, Cork forge a tight bond

Tony Fitzgerald

Better health care

Ireland and Cork city in particular, which sits on the Emerald Isle’s southern coast facing England, have a well-developed health care system that grants easy access to medical attention and general practitioner services at the community level.

According to Doherty, in a country with a tradition of what she calls “disease-oriented service,” systemic efforts are underway to gear the medical system toward an “integrated” primary care system, one that brings together all the disciplines that can support citizens to keep well.

“From our perspective, it’s really important to have primary care units rooted in the center of the community,” Doherty told Shanghai Daily. This could be a template for Shanghai as the city has embarked on a similarly ambitious drive to broaden access to family doctors and other schemes featuring early detection and intervention.

Instead of being shown the latest achievements made in high-tech parks or financial industry in the city, the Irish delegation’s Shanghai sojourn included, quite remarkably, visits to a local school and a community center.

This might seem unspectacular, but it is consistent with the professed belief of Fitzgerald and his retinue that the relationship operated at the level of the lord mayor and chief executive should “percolate down to the grassroots level.”

In the words of Ledwidge, these visits have exposed the Irish delegates to the best local practices. Especially “eye-opening” were how the school library is used and how attentive the teaching staff are to the needs of the children at the Qisehua Primary School in Huangpu District.

What also impressed him was the unique way services are provided for retirees in Shanghai. For example, at the aforementioned community center in the same district, he noted a wide range of programs and classes available for retirees, including music, drama, art and calligraphy. The sight of old people engaged in these activities reminded him of the popular indoor ball and bingo games for Cork’s elderly.

“The services here and the educational links provide a life-wide learning experience and are very dynamic,” Fitzgerald said. “They allow skills and talents of people to be explored at every age.”

More than champagne and talk: Sister cities Shanghai, Cork forge a tight bond

Patrick Ledwidge

Learning city

Having held the third UNESCO International Conference on Learning Cities in September, Cork is a new member in the club of cities blessed with the UNESCO-designated status of “learning city.”

To build on what they have achieved, Fitzgerald feels that leaders from both cities should look together at how they can provide activities for senior citizens that will increase their mobility and attend to their social needs.

The spirit of mutual learning not just underlies collaboration in the provision of senior care and recreational community events. In fact, it had marked the friendship between Shanghai and Cork even well before they formally became sister cities in 2004.

In the early years of China’s economic reform and opening up, Shanghai already began to study the success story of the Shannon Free Trade Zone, the first of its kind in the world.

The fledgling Shanghai FTZ, in Ledwidge’s opinion, is the updated version of the special economic zones that dotted China’s southern coast in the heady days of the opening-up period.

With respect to the Shanghai FTZ, the opportunity now is for Cork companies to be made aware of the benefits of investing in the FTZ, especially if they desire joint venture tie-ups with Chinese counterparts, said Ledwidge.

He also readily acknowledges the role people-to-people exchange plays in expanding ties. A typical example is a training program for both countries’ civil servants.

More than champagne and talk: Sister cities Shanghai, Cork forge a tight bond

Ann Doherty

Fruitful exchange

So far, the Cork City Council has received 20 Shanghai officials over a span of 13 years. They were put behind desks in different departments of the city hall, and therefore could observe firsthand how administrations are run in a Western country.

This certainly isn’t one-way traffic, for the Irish side also regularly sends their officials to Shanghai for 10 days to feel the beat of the fast-changing city.

This exchange has paid off.

On the Irish side, Ledwidge said knowledge about China in the early days trickled in with the arrival of these Shanghai officials, who advised their Irish colleagues on business practices, Chinese culture and how to interact with Chinese people.

“We understand what they expect and how to treat them well when we receive representatives from Chinese companies based in Cork,” said Ledwidge.

Many of those Chinese officials he worked with during these exchange programs have become lifelong friends, whom he recently met at the Shanghai reunion and happily added to his WeChat contact list.

Some have been promoted, and some have been transferred to other cities, but their commitment and goodwill continue to be a driving force of what has become an increasingly robust and richly diversified sister-city friendship.

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