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China's lobbying efforts yield new influence, openness on Capitol Hill
"It's because of our common interests that more and more members have seen the importance of this relationship," he said. "I think their understanding of China is much deeper."
An evolving outreach
Until the late 1990s, the Chinese Embassy employed only one diplomat focused on congressional affairs. It was a dead-end job for functionaries who rarely left the embassy, then located in a dour former hotel on Connecticut Avenue.
China counted on U.S. business groups, such as the American Chamber of Commerce, to lobby on its behalf. But with China's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, those U.S. groups became reluctant to work on behalf of an increasingly potent competitor.
That spurred China to up its game on Capitol Hill, as did other events.
In the mid-1990s, Taiwan's success in lobbying for a visa for then-President Lee Teng-hui to attend a reunion at Cornell University and give a speech infuriated China and helped precipitate a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
Then, in 2005, the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. tried to buy the U.S. oil conglomerate Unocal but ran into a lobbying operation backed by the American giant Chevron, which had the competing bid. The Chinese spent $4 million on lobbying. But it lost to Chevron as Congress passed a resolution opposing the Chinese-led takeover on security grounds.
Last year, China opened a $200 million citadel of an embassy overlooking Van Ness Street -- showcasing its rising fortunes and its focus on Washington. There, the beefed-up congressional affairs office now numbers at least 10 diplomats, most of whom have studied in U.S. universities, speak perfect English and are familiar with American ways.
"The Chinese have for years been wielding a lot of influence," said Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), who heads the Congressional China Caucus, which has taken a tough line on Beijing. "They've liked to do it under the radar. But as there's been more light shed on it, they've had to change their ways."
China's handling of troublesome U.S. politicians has evolved, too. When Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) proposed legislation in 2005 that would slap a 27.5 percent tariff on Chinese goods unless China revalued its currency, Beijing took a new tack. Instead of denouncing the pair on the front page of the People's Daily, as it might have in the past, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing welcomed them on a visit to China. At the end of his trip, Schumer told reporters that he was no longer sure he would push for a vote on the bill and that he was "more optimistic that this can be worked out than we were in the past."
From 2005 to 2009, China for the first time hosted more U.S. politicians and congressional staff members than Taiwan, according to LegiStorm.com, a congressional watchdog. China has also tripled the amount it spends on lobbying firms, including such powerhouses as Patton Boggs and Hogan & Hartson, since 2006 -- although it continues to be outspent by Taiwan.
Feinstein said the views of her colleagues have become more sophisticated with time. They know that China holds a massive amount of U.S. debt and that it imports a lot of goods -- $11 billion worth from her state alone last year. "I have never seen a country change as fast in 30 years as China has done," she said.
Washington used to be home to two types of "China people," known to insiders as the Red team, which supported China, and the Blue team, which backed Taiwan. These days China's rising influence has succeeded in bolstering the Reds.