Container ship in San Francisco Bay
A container ship in San Francisco Bay. Courtesy California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development

San Francisco has been going through a rough patch in recent years, which raises the stakes for the city as it hosts a massive economic conference of Pacific Rim nations this week.

The city is besieged by what some call a “doom loop” of often violent street crime, a drug abuse epidemic, a flight of corporate and commercial business and — most visibly — rampant and extremely visible homelessness.

Opinion logo
A container ship in San Francisco Bay. Courtesy California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development

San Francisco’s civic ills have so far defied officialdom’s efforts to restore the city’s once envied status as a global icon — in part because Mayor London Breed, who could face a dicey re-election next year, squabbles incessantly with the city’s Board of Supervisors over every fine point of policy.

Breed, on behalf of the city and her own political career, hopes that the thousands of government officials, corporate executives and international journalists attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, or APEC, gathering will depart with positive views of her city.

To that end, the city has made vigorous, even desperate, attempts to temporarily clean up its blight and prepare for traffic snarls and massive political demonstrations.

“We plan to do everything we can to allow people to protest peacefully, to make sure that the delegates have a great experience, and that people are safe,” the mayor has said, probably with her fingers crossed.

There’s more at stake than San Francisco’s image, of course.

While 21 Pacific Rim nations have sent delegations to the conference, all eyes will be on U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who are scheduled to have a face-to-face meeting.

Biden has ramped up economic and diplomatic pressure on China since becoming president, seeing it as an ambitious rival which wants to dominate Asia and eventually supplant the United States as a globe’s most powerful nation.

It’s important for Biden to come across as decisive and effective in dealing with his Chinese counterpart. The president’s political support level has dropped sharply in recent months, in part because of his age, and he also faces a tough re-election campaign next year.

The APEC conference also happens to coincide with two international hot spots, the war between Ukraine and Russia and the bloody clash between Israel and the militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza. China has been more or less supportive of both Russia and Hamas while the U.S. is backing the Ukraine and Israel, although there are sharp domestic political divisions over both policies.

What could possibly go wrong? Potentially everything.

The demonstrations, particularly those of far-left anarchists, could get out of hand. They would like nothing better than to be disruptive enough to spark a harsh crackdown by police that would draw global media attention.

That’s what happened in 1999 when the World Trade Organization convened a conference in Seattle and some of the more than 40,000 protesters clashed with police.

Delegates could run afoul of San Francisco’s notorious street criminals, who have victimized tourists and conventioneers in the past.

The traffic could become so bad that those who still commute into the city from suburbs — already much less numerous than pre-pandemic days — would call it quits, which would put an even greater strain on a city budget already leaking red ink. The city is highly dependent on downtown business activity and has seen sharp declines in those revenues.

Finally, the talks between Biden and Xi could blow up, putting an indelible stain on anything otherwise positive.

Simply put, everyone involved in APEC this week is playing for high political and economic stakes and that’s particularly true of the host city.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.