January 21, 2011 — Chinese President Hu Jintao, who was toasted Wednesday evening at a White House state dinner, met with a harsher reality Thursday as he heard congressional leaders recite grievances on China's approach to trade, military expansion and human rights.
While in Washington for a summit with President Obama, Hu traveled to Capitol Hill to gauge sentiment in a legislative body that has become increasingly perturbed over one of America's largest trading partners.
Hu was handed a letter by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, complaining about China's economic policies that allegedly cost American jobs, its "irresponsible" security policies and repression of dissidents, including imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
A longtime critic of China, Ros-Lehtinen said later in a statement that Hu responded only to one of the letter's criticisms — he denied that China had a policy of forced abortion.
"I was astonished," said Ros-Lehtinen, who on Monday labeled Hu "China's newest emperor.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) pressed Hu during a private meeting with House leaders to release Liu, to ease up on Tibet and to do more to slow climate change.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Hu "did not make the case for why this fellow [Liu] should be in jail. He just had a formulaic response."
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) urged stronger protections on intellectual property rights and more cooperation in dealing with China's troublesome neighbor, North Korea.
"Chinese leaders have a responsibility to do better, and the United States has a responsibility to hold them to account," Boehner said.
Lawmakers said the meetings were mostly cordial, and there were even signs that the U.S. and China were making progress on some difficult issues.
Congress has been especially concerned over Chinese moves to depress the value of its currency, which many argue have given it an unfair advantage in exports and thrown thousands of Americans out of work. This week, a group of senators introduced legislation that would hit China and other countries with large tariffs for manipulating their currencies.
Daniel Kliman, a China specialist at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said he didn't expect there would be "much of a convergence between lawmakers and Hu. But it's useful for him to take the temperature of Congress."
At a luncheon, Hu argued that China is a boon for the U.S. economy and that its rise poses no threat.
"We do not engage in an arms race or pose a military threat to any country," he said.
Hu said Sino-U.S. relations will face "constant trouble" if the two nations don't learn how to handle each other's "core interests," which for China, he said, includes the U.S. respecting its claims of sovereignty over Taiwan and Tibet. The U.S. recognizes Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.
Douglas Paal, a longtime China specialist and former U.S. official, said the statement was significant for what it did not say: Hu did not claim that the South China Sea was among China's core interests.
This year, administration officials decided that China had apparently adopted a possessive posture toward the South China Sea, implying that any foreign presence — such as the U.S. Navy — would be unwelcome.
Paal, who is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested that the Chinese "are trying to calm things down."
White House officials, meanwhile, declared the summit a success.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said the Obama administration had sought progress on security, human rights and economic issues. "I think we saw progress in each of those three areas," he said.
China's acknowledgement that North Korea had been secretly trying to enrich uranium to develop a nuclear weapons arsenal is a step forward for Beijing in the area of security, Gibbs said.
Hu left Washington on Thursday for Chicago, where he was to be the guest of honor at a dinner hosted by Mayor Richard M. Daley. On Friday, Hu is set to tour Walter Payton College prep school, which has a program to teach Chinese culture and language, and he will visit an exhibit in suburban Woodridge of Chinese goods produced in the Midwest.