In 2017, there were more than 200 sister city and state relationships between the United States and China, ties that bind states and cities. The relationships are handled, on the American side, by offices in state and city governments, often manned by volunteers. The relationships exist primarily to foster economic and cultural ties. They have rarely been used to promote human rights and the rule of law.

In the summer of 2004, I hit upon the idea of utilizing sister city relationships to intervene on behalf of political prisoners in the Chinese cities and provinces that had American partners. There were around 120 sister community relationships at that time. I and my colleagues put together a list of contacts in the governor’s and mayor’s offices who oversaw the relationships with Chinese provinces and cities. Our final list had 83 names and addresses of individuals in charge of the sister community relationship.

On August 18, 2004, Dui Hua sent letters to our list of contacts introducing our work and asking if the sister city would be willing to engage their counterparts in a discussion of human rights, and, in particular, whether the state would be willing to submit a list of political prisoners incarcerated in their Chinese counterpart’s jails and prisons.

The response was underwhelming. Of the 83 letters sent out, we received only one positive response. Lansing, Michigan’s state capital, had a sister city relationship with Sanming Municipality, a prefecture-level municipality with a population of 2.5 million, in Fujian Province. Martha Fujita, the Executive Director in charge of Lansing’s Regional Sister City Commission, housed in the Mayor’s office, replied that she would be willing to help Dui Hua. Ms. Fujita advised that a delegation headed by the mayor of Sanming would visit Lansing on September 19-21, 2004.

It so happened that there was a group of eight labor activists who had been detained in April 2002 and sentenced to prison for subversion by the Sanming Intermediate People’s Court in October 2003. The sentences ranged from two to sixteen years. The 16-year sentence was given to the group’s leader, Li Jianfeng, a former court official who had set up an independent trade union and who, the prosecution alleged, had downloaded materials from the Internet which he compiled into a book entitled “Labor Unions.”

Lansing is a city with deep roots to the automotive industry. It has manufactured automobiles at General Motor’s Lansing Plant for decades. Trade unions are strong. National and local unions as well as the local chapter of Amnesty International had already contacted Mayor Tony Benevides asking him to intervene on behalf of the Sanming Eight.

I composed a “Request for Information” and faxed it to Ms. Fujita on August 31, 2004. She agreed to find a way to hand it over, with a cover letter from Mayor Benevides, to the mayor of Sanming when the right moment presented itself.

The Chinese delegation arrived and were hosted to a “Mayor’s Welcome Dinner” and a Chamber of Commerce luncheon. They visited the General Motors plant, Michigan State University, and Sparrow Health Systems. A highlight of the delegation’s visit was sitting in on a Chinese immersion program at an elementary school where the children greeted the guests in Chinese and performed a Chinese folk song for them. The Chinese guests were thrilled and posed for photographs with the children. They also attended a baseball game and sat in the Mayor’s VIP Skybox.

In short, the Chinese delegation was treated to a hearty dose of Midwestern hospitality, setting the stage for the intervention that was to follow.

On September 21, the Chinese group left from Lansing Capital International Airport to make their way back to China via Chicago. While the group was checking in their bags, Ms. Fujita took the mayor of Sanming aside. She explained that Lansing is a city with deep connections to the labor movement, and that an important base of support for Mayor Benevides was labor unions. She then presented Mayor Benevides’ letter and Dui Hua’s request for information to the Chinese mayor. He accepted them without hesitation.

Over the next few years, two of the three labor leaders, including Li Jianfeng, were given sentence reductions and released early. Li was given sentence reductions totaling five years. He was released in April 2013. His five-year supplemental sentence of deprivation of political rights will expire next month, in April 2018. Huang Xiangwei, who was sentenced to six years in prison, received a 10-month sentence reduction and was released after serving just over five years of his sentence.

The use of sister city relationships to promote respect for human rights in China holds potential, but the relationships are rarely used. Boulder, Colorado has had an active sister city relationship with Lhasa, Tibet for more than 30 years. According to the body’s website, it “promotes and implements non-political exchanges of mutual benefit with Lhasa” including in the fields of health care, education, environmental protection, agriculture, and animal husbandry. No mention of human rights, even though human rights abuses in Tibet are often in the news. Houston, which has a sister city relationship with Shenzhen, did little to assist American businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis, even though Ms. Phan-Gillis was the president of the Houston-Shenzhen Sister City Association.

Lansing’s decision to use its relationship with Sanming to help secure the release of the Sanming Eight shows that sister city relationships can play a role in advancing the cause of human rights in China, if city and state governments demonstrate the political will to do so.