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The controversy surrounding Irvine's new sister city relationship with the Chinese city of Shanghai and the bizarre snub of neighboring Taiwan began with numerous "irregularities," including breaches of protocol, "odd" outside influences and possible "deliberate deception," according to a June 21 memo obtained by the Weekly.
Written by Irvine Sister Cities Foundation president James E. Dunning, the three-page document outlines how Henry King, the Shanghai native and husband of Councilman Larry Agran's executive aide, allegedly usurped the foundation's authority, embarrassed Irvine, and—improbable as it sounds—set the stage for an international confrontation over Taiwan.
Dunning charges that King, a foundation member, secretly communicated with Communist officials in China before and during the trip, refusing repeated requests to inform fellow delegates; unilaterally crafted a roster for the trip, inviting one person with no ties to the Sister Cities program; and shifted the agenda in Shanghai to include business unrelated to sister city matters.
Perhaps most egregious, King allegedly helped dictate scheduling, at one point putting himself and Irvine city staffer Valerie Larenne in a room alone with Tina Tian, a representative of Shanghai's Xuhui district. As King stood by without complaint, Tian demanded that Larenne, Irvine's Community Partnerships Administrator, sign a bizarre agreement. The contract, which requires nothing from the Chinese, demands that Irvine officials follow Beijing's lead, and treat the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan, as a breakaway province of the People's Republic of China.
Larenne signed—and then allegedly said nothing of the agreement to her bosses for more than a week.
The deal has been blasted in the local media, on blogs and in the streets. As the Weekly went to press, protesters planned for a noisy demonstration outside Irvine City Hall.
Mayor Beth Krom said she doesn't understand her critics. She told Orange County Register editorial writer Steven Greenhut she's "mystified" that anyone could be alarmed about an agreement that "isn't as controversial as it's made out to be."
For starters, Krom might consider that Irvine already has a successful, six-year-old Sister Cities relationship with the Taiwanese city of Taoyuan, and that the United States is formally committed to defend Taiwan if attacked by the People's Republic China. The Krom Concordat pledges that "from now on" Irvine's elected officials won't visit Taiwan, display Taiwan's flag, play its national anthem or attend any Taiwanese government functions.
It was a cocky move by the Chinese. And it depended for its success on the fact that Irvine officials weren't really focused on the Sister Cities program, a cultural, sports, economic and humanitarian exchange launched by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. They were looking for money. Multiple sources at the Sister Cities Foundation say their program may have been "hijacked" behind the scenes by Krom's political mentor, Councilman Larry Agran; Irvine Co. officials; and King. Together, they "railroaded Shanghai through as a sister city despite unanswered questions, strenuous objections and [in violation of] normal procedures." Some foundation members were "wined and dined" by Irvine Co. executives and "pressured by Agran" to expedite the process for the Chinese, sources say. They were also puzzled when King insisted that Great Park board member Michael Pinto, another Agran buddy, make the trip. Pinto has no known connection to the Sister Cities program. Yet, when the delegation arrived in Shanghai, they discovered a private meeting had been scheduled between Pinto and the Chinese.
"Pinto wished to have a separate meeting with the staff of the Xuhui Planning Department while our itinerary indicated for the rest of us to go another meeting," said Councilman Steven Choi, who also made the trip. He said other delegates were suspicious and successfully demanded that they too attend Pinto's meeting. "Whether he had a real 'private' session with anyone at night is not known," Choi told the Weekly.
What do Agran, Pinto and the county's biggest real estate developer want from Shanghai? Foundation members and others at City Hall say the People's Republic may have been asked to funnel money to private organizations tied to Agran. The money would help build a spectacular Chinese garden at the Great Park in Irvine.
The Great Park was supposed to have rivaled New York's Central Park. It's looking more like a boondoggle built on Orwellian concessions. The Shanghai contract had one other caveat: It prohibits even the mention of Taiwan or its formal name, The Republic of China. In mainland Chinese eyes, Taiwan doesn't exist, except among Red Army military leaders who are, according to a recent Pentagon report, plotting to invade the country.
Like the Communists, Mayor Krom filters reality too. She has argued that the contract is meaningless because it was signed by a city staffer. But if it was meaningless, why did Chinese officials want it?
And why has Krom been silent on King's role? Recall that King's wife is an Agran aide, and that Agran—along with Councilman Suhkee Kang—met privately with the same Shanghai officials during an earlier trip. (None would discuss the mission.) Foundation members wonder if Agran had already okayed the contract Larenne signed.
This much is sure, though: Krom continues to excuse the Chinese tactics.