One morning in the summer of 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics were set to kick off, Juan Zapata, then a Republican Florida state representative, found himself having breakfast with Zhou Wenzhong, the Chinese ambassador to the United States. Someone floated the idea of a Chinese consulate in Miami. Zapata saw a chance for local economic growth and instantly loved the idea. So did the ambassador.
"He thought it would be a natural fit," Zapata tells New Times.
Six years later Zapata, now a Miami-Dade County commissioner, is trying to make it happen. At an Economic Development Committee meeting earlier this month, he introduced a resolution to direct the mayor to establish a consulate. The resolution unanimously passed through the committee and will likely go before the full commission in September.
Commissioner's Wish for a Chinese Consulate in Miami Is a Pipe Dream
"These are things that communities that want to be major players in the international scene do," Zapata says.
Zapata's instincts are likely right, considering the nearest Chinese consulate is in Texas. But that doesn't mean the idea will ever fly. China has five consulates in the States — in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston, and the U.S. has five in China.
International diplomacy dictates that one country can't add more without accepting an equal number on its own soil. "There are a lot of major cities in the U.S. that would like to have a Chinese consulate for business reasons," says Todd Stein, an expert with the International Campaign for Tibet.
It's essentially up to the Chinese which city they would choose, Stein says, and the Chinese aren't likely to select South Florida.
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But there's also a bigger obstacle. For political and humanitarian reasons, the U.S. has long wanted a consulate in Lhasa, the capital of disputed Tibet, and numerous congressmen are doing their best to make sure no other consulates are added until the U.S. gets that one.
In 2011 the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a bill pressing the State Department to block any new Chinese consulates in the U.S. until the Americans get the post, and just last month another bill was passed reiterating the same. And with Tibetan diplomacy as contentious as ever — in February President Obama further enraged Chinese officials by meeting with the Dalai Lama at the White House — Lhasa seems farther away than ever.
Zapata, who says he didn't know about the Lhasa standoff, is undeterred. "You want to support Tibet and all that kind of stuff," he said. "But I think you just got to think about, 'Hey, what's in your community's best interest?' And that's kind of the way I'm approaching it."