CHICAGO — On Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s first trip to China nearly seven years ago, he was struck by something he saw at an elementary school: All the students spoke English, and they spoke it proficiently.
On Friday, he’ll get a chance to show off something similar in the U.S. when Chinese President Jintao Hu visits the city’s Confucius Institute during his first visit to Chicago. It’s one of the largest Chinese programs of its kind in the U.S. and one that Daley was instrumental in creating.
“There are many great things to see in Chicago, but there is nothing more important I can show President Hu than our children in school learning and our thriving business community,” Daley said Thursday evening at a lavish dinner for Hu. “One of the things we share is our commitment to prepare our children for the global economy of the future.”
Hu arrived in Chicago Thursday, after two days of White House meetings. His overnight Chicago trip was expected to focus largely on economic ties between the United States’ third-largest city and the world’s second-largest economy. On Friday afternoon he was set to attend a business expo in the suburbs.
Experts say the attention from China has been the envy of other U.S. cities and could mark a gigantic — and profitable — step forward for both parties, despite a sometimes rocky U.S.-China relationship.
Many have credited Daley’s efforts. The mayor has traveled to China four times since 2004, touting Chicago as a global transportation hub with large manufacturing and industrial sectors friendly to Chinese business.
Education has also been a focus. Daley visited schools on every visit, said Robert Davis Jr., a former director of the Confucius Institute who traveled with Daley on those trips.
To Davis, Daley’s first experience at a Chinese school was the most important. It was there, Davis said, that an excited elementary school student wearing a uniform boldly introduced himself to the mayor, grabbed the mayor’s hand and led him through the school, as nervous school officials watched.
“It left an impression on him because everyone spoke English and spoke it competently,” Davis said.
The institute, which began in 1999 as a small parent-driven Chicago Public Schools Chinese language program, was founded in 2006 with a push from Daley, according to Jane Lu, an institute director.
While similar Confucius Institutes are generally housed at universities, the Chicago institute is at Walter Payton College Prep, a prestigious math, science and language academy near downtown. About 12,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade take Chinese through the program.
While the institute doesn’t have direct ties to business, leaders in Chicago’s Chinatown say it helps forge a connection.
“It creates a whole generation of younger students and future leaders to understand Chinese culture and language. It will help the business transaction,” said Tony Shu, president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. “If you know the language, you’ll find it so much easier.”
Hu, speaking to the Thursday dinner through a translator, praised the city’s efforts with the institute and businesses.
At least 40 Chinese businesses now have operations in the Chicago area, and the number is growing. Meanwhile, several Chicago area-based companies have expanded operations in China.
“Boeing, Motorola, Caterpillar, McDonald’s and many other Midwestern companies have become household names in China,” Hu said.
Hu earlier congratulated Daley on his 22 years in office, calling him “the most senior mayor in America.”
The retiring Democratic mayor has largely stayed away from politics in developing a relationship with China. He went to Shanghai last year to headline “Chicago Days” at the 2010 World Expo. In 2008, he went to the Beijing Olympics to look for lessons for Chicago’s failed 2016 Summer Olympics bid. He has avoided criticizing China for human rights issues and s tayed away from U.S. manufacturers’ claims that China undervalues its currency to make its exports cheaper than U.S. products, contributing to high unemployment here.
An election to choose Daley’s replacement is Feb. 22. Candidates include former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who attended the Thursday dinner for Hu, and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.