Following bruising mid-term elections in which China figured in dozens of congressional races, signs are emerging that the country will be a major foreign policy issue in the 2012 elections. There will be important consequences for US-China relations as the battle over China policy coincides with a once-in-a-decade leadership change in China.
Congress Gives Hu the Cold Shoulder
Chinese president Hu Jintao’s well-choreographed state visit to Washington in mid-January went a long way toward reducing tensions and mistrust between the leaders of the two countries. Hu’s visit officially began on the morning of January 19 with a reception and 21-gun salute on the South Lawn of the White House. Flags of the two countries lined Pennsylvania Avenue, all important gestures that had been denied President Hu when he made his “official” visit to Washington in April 2006.
The warmth of President Obama’s greeting did not extend to the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, however. In an unprecedented display of congressional unhappiness with the leader of a visiting world power, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) all boycotted the state dinner for Hu Jintao held on January 19. Of the four leading members of Congress, only House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), herself a well-known critic of China’s human rights practices, showed up for the gala occasion. As Hu was arriving in the United States, Sen. Reid called him a “dictator,” though Reid later appeared to distance himself from the remark.
And at the very moment talks were beginning between the two countries’ presidents, on Capitol Hill Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen—who also boycotted the state dinner—convened a hearing to discuss China in only the second hearing of her new tenure as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In contrast, not a single full committee hearing was held on China during the entire two-year term of her predecessor, Howard Berman (D-California).
Before turning to the hearing’s panel of witnesses—three of whom are fierce critics of Chinese policies on human rights, trade, and security—Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and her colleagues delivered blistering attacks on Chinese policies in a range of areas. One of the most anti-Communist members of Congress, Ros-Lehtinen set the tone by asserting that in its rise since the end of the cold war, China has been headed by “a cynical group of leaders who, sobered by the Tiananmen Massacre and marked by the blood of its victims, were determined to go forward with economic, but not political, change.” She added that China had “fallen far short of the benign China of which former Deputy Secretary of State Zoellick spoke in coining the phrase ‘responsible stakeholder.’”
Rep. Berman chimed in with his own statement focusing on China’s trade relationship with Iran, but it was the statement by Rep. Don Manzullo that drew special attention from informed observers. Known for his generally pro-China policy stances, the Illinois Republican signaled a shift when he condemned China’s “unfair trade practices, including currency manipulation, illegal subsidies, and lax enforcement of intellectual property theft”—policies, Manzullo claimed, that have led to the loss of millions of American jobs, including thousands in his own district.
The next day, January 20, President Hu met with a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders. The reception was decidedly frosty, and unlike predictions that criticisms would focus primarily on currency manipulation, the hottest complaints were directed at China’s human rights record. Speaker Boehner criticized China’s restriction on religious freedom, and Rep. Pelosi, who had led the US delegation to the December 10 ceremony in Oslo honoring Liu Xiaobo, repeatedly raised the Nobel laureate’s case. Ros-Lehtinen attacked “China’s policy of forced abortion” (the existence of which Hu denied) and delivered to him a letter calling for the releases of Liu Xiaobo, Gao Zhisheng and, first and foremost on her list, the American geologist Xue Feng.
On his way out of the meeting, Hu was also given a letter regarding the case of Xue Feng by Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, chairman of the Trade Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee and the highest ranking Republican to attend the January 19 state dinner. Brady, who has been well disposed toward China in the past (he voted against the currency manipulation bill in the last Congress), has taken a special interest in the Xue case because Xue and his family are constituents. The congressman has repeatedly requested a meeting with China’s ambassador to the United States to discuss the case but has yet to receive a reply, a sign that after years of studying Congress the Chinese government has yet to figure out the basic rules governing relations with the legislative body.
The Middle Kingdom in the Midterms: Bad News for China
As a result of the 2010 midterm congressional elections, the 112th Congress features the most anti-China House of Representatives in more than two decades. Critics are concentrated in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where leadership of key sub-committees has been handed to long-time Republican critics of China, including Chris Smith (New Jersey), Dana Rohrabacher (California), Dan Burton (Indiana), and Ed Royce (California)—all of whom, along with Ros-Lehtinen, opposed granting China most-favored-nation trading status in the decade-long debate that dominated US-China relations in the 1990s, a point that Ros-Lehtinen reiterated in the hearing, stating:
The US took a big gamble when it voted for Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for China over a decade ago, in what some termed “the most important vote since World War II.” The vote was based upon what I see as a sadly mistaken belief that economic openness and free market reforms would lead to democracy, respect for the rule of law, and a full array of political and human rights for the Chinese people.
Ros-Lehtinen, who has distinguished herself as one of the Falun Gong’s most ardent supporters on Capitol Hill and who favors, among other things, selling advanced F-16E fighters to Taiwan and revoking China’s trade status, is not the only House Committee Chairman to have China in the cross-hairs. California Republican Howard “Buck” McKeon, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, views China’s modernizing military as a threat on the same level as the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
House of Representatives in more than two decades.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Michigan), the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in June 2010: “China is not acting in good faith and is aggressively engaged in a series of troubling and downright protectionist policies that put our economic relationship at risk.” Camp, who voted for the currency manipulation bill in the last Congress, warned that unless China immediately eliminated trade barriers and ended its policies of economic nationalism, it would lead to a breakdown in US-China relations.
Not to be outdone by her Republican colleagues, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is expected to move aggressively to reclaim the mantle of top congressional critic of China’s human rights policies. Ever the savvy politician, Mrs. Pelosi is unlikely to allow the GOP to monopolize the China issue in the 2012 election. She will no doubt learn from her friend and fellow California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer, whose relentless pounding of Carly Fiorina over her alleged shipping of jobs to China when she was chief executive of Hewlett-Packard was an important factor in the four-term senator’s decisive victory in last year’s Senate race.
If there is any good news for China in the results of the midterm election, it may well be that anti-China sentiment in the Senate is likely to be less potent than it is in the House. Two members of the Senate’s freshman class, Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), have generally favored good ties with China throughout their political careers. During his tenure in the House, Kirk founded the US-China Working Group, a forum for gatherings with Chinese officials and diplomats eager to explain China’s positions. Portman served as President Bush’s top trade official, a position he used to advance trade and investment policies with Beijing. Such a political position is not without risks. In last year’s election, Kirk had to parry an accusation by his opponent that acceptance of contributions from American businessmen based in China amounted to “economic treason.”
What the Polls Tell Us
Voters responded negatively to the China-related attack on Kirk, but this proved to be exceptional. Most attacks in the mid-term elections appear to have been effective, and for this reason alone we can expect to see more of them in next year’s elections. In addition, polls of American public opinion reveal that a majority of Americans view China unfavorably and perceive it to be a major economic, if not military threat. At the same time, Americans view the relationship with China as important and want to see better relations with Beijing, but not at the price of appearing weak on economic, human-rights, and security issues.
In the most recent Gallup measure of American opinion towards China (released in February 2011) 47 percent of Americans had a favorable view of China versus 50 percent who held an unfavorable view. A poll taken by ABC News/Washington Post on the eve of the Hu visit found similar numbers: 42 percent favorable, 49 percent unfavorable.
But it is a poll taken in early January by the respected Pew Research Center that best illustrates the deep unease Americans feel about China. Among its key findings:
65 percent of Americans view China either as “an adversary” or “a serious problem, but not an adversary.” The 22 percent who see China as an adversary is the highest percentage since 2001. One in five identify China as the greatest threat to the United States, also the highest percentage since 2001, the year of the EP-3 spy plane incident;
By a two-to-one margin (60 percent vs. 27 percent) Americans are more concerned with China’s economic strength than its military strength;
85 percent think it is important for the United States to be tougher on trade and economic issues with China and 72 percent think it is important that the US do more to promote human rights there;
Republicans tend to be more concerned with trade issues (60 percent who identify themselves as Tea Party members think it is “very important” to get tougher on trade), while Democrats are tougher on human rights than Republicans, with 48 percent thinking it is “very important” to push China harder on rights.
America’s concern over China’s poor human rights record has remained remarkably consistent over the years, and in light of what President Hu experienced in Washington and the most recent soundings by pollsters, human rights could well be as significant an issue in next year’s election as trade and economic barriers. Of course concern over trade and human rights are not mutually exclusive and can, in fact, reinforce each other, as campaign advertisements targeting violations of workers’ rights and “sweatshop” conditions show.
Ambassador and Statesman: Jon Huntsman Joins the Fray?
Of special concern for President Obama is the weak support for his China policy among the American people. According to the Pew survey, only 39 percent of Americans approve of his handling of relations with China, with the remainder either holding no opinion or expressing opposition. This last finding and other manifestations of anti-China sentiment among political elites and the American people as a whole doubtless played a role in Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s decision to leave his post as American envoy to China effective April 30.
Although Huntsman has not stated that he will leave Beijing to launch a 2012 presidential bid, the widespread speculation that he is doing so is ample proof that China chops are seen as a formidable qualification. China experience can be a double-edged sword, however. As President Obama’s chief representative in China for the last two years, Huntsman is an easy target for the administration’s perceived policy failures in Beijing. Yet his deep knowledge of the country and its emerging leadership, coupled with the relative ignorance and inexperience of his likely opponents in a crowded field, would on balance prove an asset. The special attention Mr. Huntsman paid to the case of Xue Feng—personally visiting Xue six times in the detention center and attending his sentencing hearing—will almost certainly earn kudos from an electorate deeply skeptical of the care its leaders pay to the plight of individuals, at home or overseas.
How will Beijing react to the heated rhetoric of an American election year in which China is a major issue? House leaders in the 112th Congress will certainly take positions and make statements that will anger a Chinese leadership that will itself be in transition. With Xi Jinping the likely favorite to take over as the new Communist Party chairman a few weeks before the November 2012 election, how Xi and his team respond to congressional pressure will be seen in China as the first test of the new leadership. Based on what has been observed so far, it appears that Xi has little interest in political reform and no sympathy at all for dissidents or others seen as a threat to stability, and his response to congressional pressure is likely to be tough and unyielding—generating yet more heat from both sides of the aisle in Congress.
The Hu state visit reduced mistrust that was escalating rapidly and produced a measure of goodwill in both populations. But when it came to resolving—or for that matter even addressing—the fundamental differences which have plagued relations, little was achieved other than a regurgitation of promises already made. (As an example, the joint statement proclaimed that the long-delayed Legal Experts Dialogue would be resumed, the third time such a promise has been made in the last 18 months.) With institutional irritants like the imminent release of the State Department’s annual human rights report and the likelihood of more arms sales to Taiwan, the Hu visit could well turn out to be a high point in a relationship headed for rough waters.