In the week since Randy Leonard introduced a City Council proclamation declaring March 10 as Tibet Awareness Day, you could mistake the city commissioner for an undersecretary of state or a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Anything but the ambassador to China.
Leonard's proclamation—signed by Mayor Sam Adams seven days ago—aims to "honor the Tibetans who died in their struggle for freedom and to reaffirm the independence of Tibet."
Sounds simple enough for Portlanders on their way to yoga class with a "Free Tibet" bumper sticker. But as first reported on wweek.com, the message from the city—a trade partner courting more Chinese investment—didn't play so well 5,000 miles away in Beijing.
The day Adams signed the proclamation, Leonard got a call from officials at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. They weren't happy. Occupied by China since 1950, Tibet has become a diplomatic liability for the People's Republic of China.
Even Leonard agrees a small city like ours is an unlikely place for a diplomatic showdown. But for one week, the gloves came off in the People's Republic of Portland as Chinese interests played every card in their deck to pressure City Hall—so far without success.
Suddenly Leonard, a former history major at Portland State University, sounded like the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when speaking of Tibet. He cited what he called past mistakes the United States has made supporting oil-rich Middle Eastern countries over human rights.
"If we are getting into a political relationship with a country that makes them feel like they can lean on us, I believe we should think twice about that relationship," Leonard said, stressing the need to "recognize the rights of all people to have their religion respected."
Not everyone agrees with Leonard's priorities.
The local Chinese community took issue, tapping Stephen Ying, a retired Intel employee from Northwest Portland, to arrange meetings with Leonard on March 5.
Leonard met with four members of Portland's sister-city committee with the Chinese city of Suzhou. They told Leonard his resolution would harm relations between Portland and China. Leonard offered to pull out of a planned weeklong trip to Suzhou in June—an offer Leonard says the committee gladly accepted.
Later the same day, Leonard met with Michael Bloom and Cathy Chinn of the Northwest China Council, a Portland-based business group. They argued Portlanders can't afford to risk the city's relationship with China, the state's No. 2 export market. But they didn't get far with Leonard either.
"If it means selling out our city's principles, I don't want that business, frankly," Leonard tells WW.
The real heavyweights came to town March 8, when a four-member delegation from the Chinese Consulate arranged separate meetings with Leonard and Adams.
The consulate did not return phone calls seeking comment. But Leonard says the delegation asked him to renounce the proclamation and cancel a ceremony with Tibetans at City Hall on March 10.
He refused both requests. Instead Leonard, who's never been shy about wading into negotiations over everything from Portland police to public restrooms, made suggestions about how Beijing should handle the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. But Leonard says the Chinese wouldn't listen.
Next the delegation met with Adams, who says he also refused Chinese officials' requests to issue a statement clarifying Tibet's position under China and to stop the Tibetan ceremony.
Adams, who has made several trade-boosting trips to China, says his staff thoroughly vetted the proclamation, and he doesn't believe it will harm long-term relations.
"I told them that I appreciated the visit," Adams says, "and for taking the time to convey their concerns, but that we would have to disagree on some issues."
Tibetans and city officials will raise the Tibetan flag in a ceremony at 10 am Wednesday, March 10, in front of City Hall. Tibetans will then march to Pioneer Square.