BEIJING - For a trip that started with an unplanned encounter with a man dressed as Santa Claus doing a Rocky run up the Great Wall, it was only fitting that Mayor Nutter should wrap up his five days here with a photo-op next to Big Bird in a schoolyard.
The mayor's trip had many surreal moments, but there was serious business as well.
Nutter was invited to China as a speaker for a conference hosted by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, whose think tank in Chicago is tackling the critical issue of making China's megacities more livable and sustainable. Nutter, like Big Bird, was recruited to get the message out.
During his stay, Nutter - "Na Te," his name in Chinese - stepped into many roles, swinging adroitly from one to another.
There was Nutter as statesman and Nutter as pitchman. One moment he was signing a memorandum on future city-to-city cooperation with Tianjin's mayor, the next he was meeting in the offices of Air China to argue for nonstop service to Philadelphia International Airport.
There was Nutter as wonk and Nutter as student - now explaining to Chinese policymakers his pledge to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the United States, then listening as Tianjin officials described the breakneck economic reinvention of China's fourth-largest city.
But what about Nutter as mayor?
As sure as Eagles fans like to take potshots at Andy Reid, someone is certain to snipe that Nutter has more important matters to tend to at home.
Nutter argues that this type of trip is just what he should be doing.
The trip was paid for primarily by Select Greater Philadelphia, an economic-development marketing organization, with some contribution from the International Visitors Council of Philadelphia.
"From time to time, I will have to get out of City Hall," Nutter said in an interview at the end of his trip, "and I'm doing my job, which is to try to get more jobs and investment in Philadelphia."
Baseball cap diplomacy
Not since the legendary visit of the Philadelphia Orchestra here in 1973 have the Chinese heard the name Philadelphia mentioned so much - from a Beijing conference on cities attended by Chinese policymakers and officials, to television and newspaper coverage of his visit.
Even the mayor's daily choice of a baseball cap has been a rotating plug for Temple or Drexel Universities, or the University of Pennsylvania.
Nutter's first order of business was a two-day visit to Tianjin, 70 miles east of Beijing.
Thirty-two years ago, Philadelphia became a sister city of Tianjin. It seemed like a logical match. Both were ports that had seen better days and suffered in the shadow of more prominent neighbors; Tianjin is to Beijing as Philadelphia is to New York.
But Tianjin's fortunes have gotten a major boost from the country's central planners, with an infusion of investment that can only be viewed as spectacular. Just as Shenzhen and Shanghai's Pudong district have been anointed as national economic hubs, so has Tianjin. Its economy is growing at a rate of 20 percent a year.
The central government wants to develop Tianjin as a national magnet for attracting and developing China's clean-energy economy.
"Clean energy is the government's current priority for a 21st-century industry," said Merritt T. Cooke, a former diplomat in the U.S. commercial service and founder of the China Partnership of Greater Philadelphia.
His nonprofit is trying to foster collaboration on projects between regional businesses and institutions and Tianjin counterparts. Cooke was part of Nutter's delegation, which also included representatives from Drexel, Fox Chase Cancer Center, the White & Williams law firm, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., and the orchestra.
The mayor's appearance, Cooke said, will get people's attention here. "The Chinese will not take any institution's engagement seriously without there being a strong validation at the government level," he said.
The main event in Tianjin was a meeting Tuesday between Nutter and his counterpart, Huang Xingguo, an unelected Communist Party official who administers the megacity of 13 million.
This was no meet-and-greet with a box lunch.
Nutter, the first Philadelphia mayor to visit Tianjin, was welcomed at the city's government guesthouse, built within a moat and designed to radiate power. A police escort with lights flashing delivered Nutter in a black Mercedes-Benz to the front door. His entrance was the cue for a pianist to begin playing a grand piano.
Heels clicking on the marble, Nutter was escorted into a cavernous reception hall and seated in a red armchair next to Huang in front of a giant mural of the Great Wall.
More than 50 Chinese officials sat on Huang's side of the room, eyes fixed on Nutter. "I was a little nervous," Nutter admitted later.
In a separate signing room, Nutter and Huang penned a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on many levels, including making their cities more sustainable - a pet issue for Nutter.
Each of the other Philadelphia emissaries also signed agreements with Tianjin counterparts, before everyone convened for a banquet and toasts around a table the size of Logan Circle.
Whether the pomp translates into tangible results is up to Nutter.
He has already invited Huang to visit Philadelphia next year.
"I don't think either of us," Nutter said, "has any interest in this just being a ceremonial signing."
For two days in Beijing, Nutter shuttled between the Paulson Institute's conference at the China World hotel in central Beijing to private business meetings around town.
On Tuesday, Nutter joined Mark Gale, chief executive of the airport, at the headquarters of Air China. On Wednesday, he met with Ambassador Gary Locke for a forum on investment with China-based U.S. executives.
Having the mayor join him, Gale said, "sends a very, very clear message that the city and region are very serious about our desire for new air service."
At the Paulson conference, attended by about 200 Chinese policymakers, scholars, and officials, Nutter the policy wonk was in his element.
Nutter, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, shared a panel with Beijing's acting mayor, Wang Anshun. Beijing's biggest problem: a population growing by one million people a year.
Philadelphia's has grown by 11,000 people since 2010. Even so, Nutter told the audience, mayors everywhere have to make sure that the air people breathe is clean and the water fresh, and that cities remain inviting places to live.
Through a translator, Nutter enthused about solar-panel trash compactors, storm-water management, and the increase in recycling, as well as the uptick in college students and empty-nesters who want to stay in Philadelphia.
A Chinese journalist afterward declared his presentation "fantastic."
During his trip, Nutter carried around with him a thick blue binder filled with schedules and talking points.
In a rare unscripted moment, after the pomp and ceremony with the Tianjin mayor, Nutter ditched his black Mercedes and jumped into a bus carrying the rest of the Philadelphia delegation.
Nutter was pumped. It was a postgame pep talk.
"As Philadelphians, we often downplay what we have to offer, that we're not good enough," he told the others. "I'm trying to break that."
He reminded them that Tianjin is just one of seven sister cities of Philadelphia. "It's time for us to open ourselves up," the mayor said. "We can't be a secret anymore."
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