This week’s news cycle has been dominated by Chinese Premier Hu Jintao’s four-day visit to the United States.
During his visit, Hu has held a series of meetings with President Barack Obama and other high-level policymakers, corporate titans and diplomats.
The visit’s climax came Wednesday night, when Obama hosted an official state dinner highlighted by honey and produce from the White House garden.
The visit was a major improvement from Hu’s last visit in 2006, when President George W. Bush declined to stage such a ceremony, which was seen by many as an insult.
Although it is never surprising for Congress to be up in arms about the week’s biggest news story, in this case the harsh words of some senators and representatives have been particularly unhelpful to American interests.
The visit, especially Wednesday’s dinner, has been controversial. Members of Congress were particularly outspoken critics of Obama’s cordial treatment of Hu, citing Chinese human rights violations and currency manipulation.
Despite the continuing repressiveness of China’s government, especially toward women, minorities and political opponents, the country remains the single most important potential American partner — and potential American enemy — in today’s world.
On any issue that is considered a major foreign policy priority, including Iran’s nuclear program, global trade, climate change and energy security, we can expect to accomplish very little without Chinese cooperation.
The converse is also true: At this point, it is a virtual certainty that if the United States and China agree on a policy, their combined strength can mobilize the rest of the world.
For example, though the two countries were primarily responsible for scuttling a potential climate change deal in Copenhagen in 2009, any agreement between the two would likely force all other countries into line.
The key to these achievements will be establishing a positive, productive relationship with China, a country whose government’s main concern is maintaining a positive image at home.
Respectful diplomacy can help us move toward common goals without threatening one-party rule; public condemnation, however, will force China to lash out at us to “save face.”
There is a second problem with Congress’ antics this week. Not only are they hurting our efforts to make progress on crucial international issues, they also stand virtually no chance of having an effect on the problems highlighted.
It is true that China’s human rights abuses are abhorrent, and that its artificially low currency makes it hard for American companies to export there.
But it is absurd to think that the United States can somehow bully China into fixing these problems with angry public pronouncements or by refusing to hold state dinners with Hu.
Those tactics might work in smaller, poorer countries that are dependent on the United States, but if anything, it is we who are dependent on the Chinese.
They own more than $1 trillion of our debt. Many of our largest companies depend on their cheap, productive labor.
Furthermore, their increasing success is providing a crucial new market for American goods; GM now sells more cars in China than it does here.
We simply do not have the leverage to force China’s hand on domestic issues without doing ourselves great harm.
In fact, the best way to encourage change in China is to allow it to keep happening.
Thirty years ago, China was a poor, closed society in which many people could scarcely relate to institutions we value highly, such as democracy, the free market and human rights.
The poverty rate has declined from 64 percent in 1981 to 10 percent in 2001. There are 117 Starbucks in Shanghai, and the government is fearing increasing pressure to reform from intrepid bloggers across the country.
As the Chinese have grown wealthier and gained more exposure to the West, they have more strongly demanded political change as well.
Congress should seek to encourage this trend rather than finding things to condemn.
I do not doubt that Congress is acting with the best intentions. This seems to be another case, though, in which stubborn insistence on principle has high potential costs and very low expected benefits.
If Congress has a problem with China, maybe in this case it would be better to say nothing at all.
Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” runs Fridays.