Los Angeles Mayor and Chair of this summer’s Democratic National Convention Antonio Villaraigosa recently courted Chinese investors for ambitious transit initiatives in Los Angeles. But his pursuit of funds for speeding up the construction of mass transit projects could come at a political cost especially if human rights issues continue to surface.
The main reason Mayor Villaraigosa has approached Chinese officials about his plan to build a dozen mass transit projects in 10 years instead of 30 is because he doesn’t see Congress being able to provide the funds. Back in January at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he said: “You have a Congress that’s just been indifferent to cities.”
Back in December while in Beijing, Villaraigosa met with executives from China Investment Corp. in preliminary meetings to discuss transit projects. Then in February, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping came to Los Angeles to announce an entertainment deal and to attend an economic forum. Xi met with Villaraigosa and Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA), even attending a Laker game with the two leaders. Since this meeting, Governor Brown has also been talking about the China relationship saying. “It’s a source of investment,” argued Brown. “Instead of buying T-bills, they can buy into some of our projects.”
Villaraigosa and Brown may feel that it’s prudent to ask China for funding since California exported $14.1 billion in goods and services there last year. In addition, China is the Port of Los Angeles’ leading trading partner in both imports and exports.
But despite the trade relationship and flow of goods going between China and California, the Chinese state continues its authoritative rule and crackdown on protest. That fact is certain to raise the brows of not only human rights activists, but also Republicans hungry for a talking point to take Democratic polling numbers down a notch later in the summer. Some observers wonder if the Mayor could take a political hit for the deal, particularly over concerns about the $1.2 trillion in U.S. debt owned by the economic and military competitor. The question will come up: if we already owe China this much money, why is the Mayor of the second largest city in the United States making a unilateral deal with them? It could become a distraction to what is being billed as a celebration in Charlotte, North Carolina beginning September 3rd.
During the meetings with Villaraigosa, Brown, and Xi, it became apparent that human rights were not on the agenda – although a local Los Angeles area pastor was arrested at a protest outside the hotel where Xi was staying during his February visit.
For Brown and Villaraigosa, it’s all about the money. Governor Brown did acknowledge that there are human rights issues in China, but he did not want to take ownership of having to address them, instead diverting the conversation back to jobs in California telling the press earlier this month that “[t]here’s trillions of dollars over the next 10 years the Chinese have to invest. They’re doing it in South America, they’re doing it in Africa, and they’re not doing it in California at the level they could.”
In an interview with Grist.org last week, Villaraigosa again rationalized approaching China for help with his transportation projects citing the partisan gridlock in Congress. “The fact that we can’t get the House to support a bill that the Senate approved by a vote of 74 to 22, the fact that they [House GOP leaders] wanted to eliminate funding for public transit, is an example of just how extreme the House is, and how partisan this issue has become,” said Villaraigosa.
If Villaraigosa and other leaders continue to approach and possibly even seal a deal with Chinese investors, expect concerns about human rights to be raised especially in regards to the Tibetan region, which the Chinese government blocks off to outsiders. A McClatchy commentary from this February argued that the U.S. should not simply turn a blind eye to abuses in China even if there are gains to be made from business relationships. As Villaraigosa’s visilibity increases with his role as the Chair of the Democratic National Convention and with rumors swirling about a possible cabinet position in a second Obama administration, the scrutiny of any potential Chinese investments will be heightened. While the agreements at the moment are non-binding, optics can make or break any vision in politics. Yet, if Villaraigosa is able to put Los Angeles on an accellerated path to a more efficient transportation system, it will certainly be a legacy building accomplishment.