Congress cannot afford to turn back on Chinese

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.

Julia Vann | Daily Trojan

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.

4 replies
  1. bmb
    bmb says:

    I think it is right time for the Chinese leaders to make efforts in human rights improvement, starting from more freedom of speech and less censored press. Their moronic ways to control Internet forms and other thought venues are only one example of CCP’s political in-confidence, that already harmed people’s creative thinking, and hindered the development of a citizen society. The time to make money from sweatshop has got to come to an end.

    Also, as a Chinese student, I can first hand testify that women and ethical minorities are treated fair and well in China, at least politically. It is the rebels and political opponents that the government is ruthless toward, just because “they could.”

  2. Jackson
    Jackson says:

    Please, there is a mistake in the very first sentence of the article. It’s President Hu Jinato, not Premier Hu Jintao. Titles are taken very seriously by the Chinese; maybe a little more time should have been invested into researching for this article. The rest of it is not much better.

  3. ybing
    ybing says:

    “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.”

    Human rights:

    In the long term, improved human rights/more political liberty “may” benefit China. But the time is not ripe now. As a country that is still in its inchoate stage of development, its focus ought to be on economic development. And a strong hand at the helm serves an important, unifying role while the economic objective is being achieved. It would be unrealistic to expect China, after its modernizing experience of the last few decades, to shift from its economic preoccupation that has brought stunning results, to precipitate political reform that carries risks.

    This is not to say that human rights/political liberty are not important, but that freedom has inherent de-stabalizing effects which China has a nation cannot afford to endure at this stage. Human rights and freedom makes more sense when economic development and literacy have reached a considerable level.

    With its large population, China is a country with a million wants and resentments. It need not apologize for the measured pace it has chosen for its human rights development.

    I very much concur with you on the point that megaphone diplomacy is counterproductive. At the same time, it must also be noted that China has never on any occasion made any remarks about such American atrocities as the illegal wars the USA has waged against other sovereign nations (Iraq, Afghanistan), and the torturing of Iraqi prisoners. China is not in the habit of lecturing/hectoring other nations. The same cannot be said of the USA.

    On the issue of Chinese currency

    “Many economists are skeptical that a revaluation of the yuan would generate more jobs in the US or lead to companies relocating production from China to the US. Indeed, a recent Yale University paper forecasts that the net effect of a revaluation on US output could go either way. Indeed, it could be slightly negative.” (from Straits Times, Singapore 10-04-2010)

    • Jackson
      Jackson says:

      So in this load of verbal nonsense your point is that it is fine for China to repress and oppress its own citizens, ethnic minorities, and religious sects in a way reminiscent of the Soviet Union because it wants to expand economically, and that the devaluation of the yuan is not such a big deal either (based on one quotation that you found)?

      I don’t really want to debunk so much stupidity at one time, but for one when you say “China has never on any occasion made any remarks about American atrocities as the illegal wars the USA has waged….” so on and so forth, you’re completely wrong. Every year, when the US releases its annual human rights report on the nations of the world, which inevitably criticizes China, a few days later China releases its own report that criticizes the US for its shortcomings. So yes, every year the Chinese government formally and publicly DOES bring up and condemn American “atrocities”. Maybe you should do a tad bit of research and thinking before saying “never on any occasion”.

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