Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping on Wednesday fielded tough questions from U.S. lawmakers on a range of issues including China’s record on human rights, its valuation of its currency and its vote together with Russia against this month’s United Nations resolution on the conflict in Syria.
The questions came in back-to-back meetings with top senators and House members on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning on the second day of Xi’s visit to Washington. Later Wednesday, he addresses an economic group in D.C. before heading to Iowa.
In an interview after Xi’s half hour meeting with top senators in the Senate’s Lyndon B. Johnson room, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that most of the conversation had been focused on trade and intellectual property issues, and that he had been the sole lawmaker to raise the issue of China’s human rights record — including China’s U.N. vote on Syria.
“His response to my statements was, he said, ‘Senator McCain, your candor is very well-known in China,’” McCain said.
“I just mentioned to the vice president there’s been enormous and dynamic economic progress, but we still have Tibetan monks burning themselves to death; we have Nobel Prize winners under house arrest; and the continued propping up of North Korea, a brutal regime that is capable of causing profound international crises; and I mentioned to the vice president I thought it was really wrong to veto the resolution on Syria in the Security Council,” McCain said. “The Syrian government is massacring thousands of its people.”
While the overall meeting was “certainly cordial and courteous,” McCain said that Xi told him that “we have a long way to go, you know that America had problems also in the past, and he didn’t answer my question concerning the veto of the resolution, nor did he respond on human rights.”
In addition to McCain, the other nine senators attending the meeting were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
After meeting with the senators, Xi and his entourage crossed the Capitol for a meeting with top House leaders including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
As he left his ceremonial office off the House floor after the half-hour huddle, Boehner declined to answer questions about how the meeting went.
Cantor said that the meeting was “very cordial” and that issues from human rights to Iran and Syria were raised. The latter issue was one that Cantor said he had raised personally.
“Obviously, it’s a huge concern,” Cantor said of Syria. “You’ve got innocent people dying at the hands of this brutal dictator in Bashar al -Assad. I frankly raised the issue and was disappointed with China’s position on that at the U.N., and would hope that we could work together to try and end the bloodshed.”
Asked about Xi’s response, Cantor said, “Although I think we share the end goal of peace, stability and progress, maybe they just see it in a little different way of how to get there. We’re going to still try and push our position because people are dying.”
Both McCain and Cantor’s comments underscored the fine line many lawmakers of both parties tread when it comes to criticizing China on human rights and trade and at the same time striking a tone of U.S.-China cooperation.
“I think that they recognize that they have progress to make,” Cantor said of China’s record on human rights and religious freedom more broadly. “We recognize we can always make progress, and where we can find common ground together, I think that is our role as the largest developed economy in the world, to help convince China that it should put a priority on the continued promotion of the rights of minorities, the rights to pursue religious freedom and human rights.”
McCain said that “we had high hopes back at the time of the normalization of relations; many of those hopes have not been realized.”
“That does not mean that we seek confrontation with China,” he said. “We don’t. But it does mean that we expect progress to be made in China, and that progress has not been present ever since Tiananmen Square.”
The meetings come as some lawmakers are ramping up their calls for China to take action on a wide range of issues, from the valuation of the yuan to Iran’s nuclear program.
It also comes months after the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill that would give the Treasury Department greater authority to pressure China on the currency issue. Senators who back the measure accuse China of manipulating its currency in order to flood the U.S. economy with cheap imports. The White House says it believes diplomatic rather than legislative channels should be used to pressure China to let the yuan increase in value.
The 10 senators huddling with Xi on Wednesday greeted the vice president and other Chinese officials outside the Senate’s LBJ Room.
Xi first shook hands with Reid, then McConnell, and then the other senators, who introduced themselves one by one as interpreters translated their remarks.
Xi and the senators stood together for a short photo op outside the room. Then the group headed into the LBJ Room, Reid with his hand briefly on Xi’s back; the group posed again for several dozen photographers and videographers, making no public remarks before reporters were ushered from the room.