By Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 9:37 PM
Chinese President Hu Jintao held closed-door meetings Thursday morning with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, who raised concerns about business and human rights matters a day after Hu was feted at the White House but also pressed on those issues by President Obama.
In an hour-long meeting between Hu and House leaders, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) emphasized intellectual property protections and security on the Korean Peninsula, while Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) addressed human rights matters. After walking across the Capitol for a similar meeting with Senate leaders, Hu later delivered a speech to U.S. business leaders, assuring them that China will stick to its policy of opening up to the world and denying that his country has expansionist intentions. But he said the ruling Chinese Communist Party remains committed to building "a modern socialist country," and he rejected interference regarding Taiwan and Tibet, which China regards as internal matters.
The meetings on Capitol Hill displayed the trouble for lawmakers of reading between the lines of Hu's statements. Many members of Congress are looking for immediate results from China, while others view this week's talks as a subtle but key shift in China's approach to what its calls the "outside world."
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emerged Thursday from his huddle with Hu optimistic and hopeful on all fronts, suggesting a major breakthrough had occurred in Hu's recognition that his nation had a subpar human rights record and that key progress was made in making China engage other nations.
Kerry singled out Hu's assurances that China wants to defuse the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, as well as other "conflict areas." This was a different posture than the centuries-old view that outside nations should not meddle in China's internal affairs, nor would China meddle in other countries' domestic matters.
"I think there's a change and a shift in their recognition of the role they need to play," Kerry told reporters. "The role of major power is not something they've been accustomed to playing. They've been mostly focused on their internal issues. . . . "The idea of projecting outwards is new, and I think they recognize now they are more engaged with many, many countries, that this is part of the deal."
On the House side, however, both Democrats and Republicans felt that not much progress had been made. They suggested that Hu had engaged in a Senate-style filibuster, speaking for 20 minutes in response to Boehner's questions related to trade and intellectual property. About 10 members of House leadership attended the meeting, with Boehner and Pelosi the only lawmakers asking questions.
Pelosi declined to comment to reporters after the meeting, and in a lengthy statement released almost three hours later, she noted that she "had the opportunity to relay the concerns" about Hu's refusal to allow Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo to travel to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in December.
Republicans felt Hu dodged her question. "It was a somewhat evasive answer," Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr. (R-La.) said.
Boehner gave a neutral assessment of the meeting, saying, "I expressed my concerns about intellectual property and the issue of North Korea. The president responded, and I would hope that the dialogue on all of these subjects will continue."
Just before they ducked into the Lyndon B. Johnson Room for Thursday morning's meeting, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) pulled Hu aside for a few minutes. The brief exchange was out of earshot of reporters, but the two could be seen smiling as two interpreters relayed their remarks to each other.
McCain emphasized that China needs to do more on human rights. "There's a certain amount of irony that a Nobel Peace Prize winner should be hosting dinner and last year's . . . Nobel Prize winner is under house arrest," McCain said. He was referring to Obama, who won the 2009 prize, and to Liu, the 2010 winner who is actually in prison.
However, Kerry concluded the week of events saying that U.S. businessmen told him that their meetings with Hu were "one of the best discussions" ever with a Chinese leader.
"Words, as we all know, don't define a policy. It's going to have to be translated, but it's the opening to the door to be able to try to translate it. Now you've got to go further down the road and work on the details," Kerry said.
Kerry's words of approval came a day after Reid, in an interview with a Las Vegas news station, called Hu a "dictator," and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, compared him to an ancient Chinese emperor. (Reid later backtracked.)
Taken together, the comments suggested a growing and bipartisan view in Congress that China's policies are harmful to the U.S. economy and other interests - or at least that saying so makes for good politics back home, particularly during the current era of high unemployment and mounting federal debt.
"We can't afford to keep losing jobs and wealth because China manipulates its currency," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters during a conference call Monday.
Schumer, along with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), has led an effort to penalize China for what they allege is intentional undervaluing of its currency, known officially as the renminbi but colloquially as the yuan. That makes its exports cheaper to sell here and drives up the cost of U.S. products in China.
These lawmakers believe that the political wind is at their backs and have every intention of making sure their voters back home know they are pushing the cause on Capitol Hill. In describing his currency proposal, Schumer said it sends a message to Beijing: "If you refuse to play by the rules, we will force you to do so."