The two majority leaders of the Hawaii Legislature traveled to China in late March as part of an effort to facilitate formal relations between the United States and China at state and local levels.

Sen. Kalani English said the trip could lead to increased Chinese tourism to Hawaii, thanks to visitor industry ties already established between China and Hawaii, and an interest in Sun Yat-sen, the early 20th-century Chinese revolutionary who spent significant time in the islands.

“The Chinese are very interested in that connection with Hawaii, and I believe, as do they, that there is a huge potential to come here,” said English, who noted that Sun spent time in Honolulu and on Maui. “The Chinese revolution was formulated out of Honolulu and funded out of Hawaii.”

From left: House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, North Dakota House Majority Leader and Chair SLLF Board of Directors Al Carlson, SLLF President Steve Lakis and Senate Majority leader Kalani English. In the back row is Kong Xuan You, assistant minister of foreign affairs for the People’s Republic of China.
From left, Hawaii House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, North Dakota House Majority Leader Al Carlson, SLLF President Steve Lakis, and Senate Majority Leader Kalani English. Behind them at center is Kong Xuan You, assistant minister of foreign affairs for the People’s Republic of China. Sen. Kalani English

English and Rep. Scott Saiki, both Democrats, joined 10 other U.S lawmakers who traveled at the invitation of the Chinese government. The trip was paid for by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation and the Chinese, and English and Saiki said no state funds were involved.

Both lawmakers said they had hoped the trip could coincide with Hawaii legislative recess days from Feb. 25 to March 1. But, as English explained, that time frame coincided with a traditional Chinese travel period.

The March 25-April 1 program, which was held in Beijing and Nanjing and included a travel stay-over in Shanghai, arose out of a memorandum of understanding penned in December between the U.S. foundation and the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. The memorandum established a permanent partnership between the two organizations.

The partnership is described as a direct result of an agreement reached between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last October during Xi’s visit to the U.S.

The purpose of that agreement, according to the State Legislative Leaders Foundation’s website, is “to enhance sub-national exchanges and cooperation” between China and the U.S.”

7 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
House Majority Leader Scott Saiki. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

English explained that the U.S. foundation is the only organization that the Chinese will deal with at a state and local level. In China, those levels of government include 22 provinces, four autonomous regions, four cities and two special administrative regions.

Said Saiki, “What became clear to me is that the Chinese sincerely want to develop relations with states as opposed to the federal government. They want exposure to our different states, and to the legislative leaders in those states.”

Saiki added, “They are exploring ways to advance China within the states, and they believe that doing so at the local level provides them that opportunity.”

The next phase of the new partnership is the fourth annual conference of majority leaders that will meet in Honolulu June 22-25, and English and Saiki are the co-hosts. As that meeting concludes, more than 100 Chinese leaders will arrive in Honolulu to meet with Hawaii leaders for several days.

Senate Majority Leader Kalani English.
Senate Majority Leader Kalani English. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“This is quite important for U.S.-Sino relations but also quite important for Hawaii,” said English.

Currently, about 140,000 Chinese visit Hawaii annually, and they are known to be big spenders. But a lack of direct flights between China and Hawaii limits access.

Stephen Lakis, SLLF’s president, said his group sent a delegation of U.S. leaders to China about eight years ago. That led to growing interest in developing relations, and Lakis travelled to China with several leaders last year to continue discussions.

“Our goal is to establish a conduit between U.S. state legislative leaders and Chinese provincial leaders, with the idea of advancing trade, commerce and educational exchanges,” he said.

When Obama and Xi endorsed the idea, Lakis described it as “a big feather in the cap” that has led to the latest visits. He estimated that the Chinese were picking up about 70 percent of the expenses, with the foundation covering the remaining 30 percent.

“It’s pretty clear to me that Hawaii can serve as a gateway for this to enhance collaboration between China and the U.S.,” he said. “Meeting halfway in Honolulu — it could not be any more perfect.”

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