WASHINGTON, October 18, 2011— The Chinese government often gets a bad rap in Washington, D.C., and last week was no different.
On Tuesday, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate paused from bashing each other to pass a bill pressuring China to raise the value of its currency, the Yuan, or face tariffs on its exports to the US. Although the legislation passed the Senate, it still needs to clear the House before President Barack Obama signs it into law.
Hours after the Senate vote, GOP presidential hopefuls took their own swipes at China, using words like “cheat” and “steal” to characterize the government’s behavior surrounding its currency and intellectual property laws. Former Senator Rick Santorum pounded his fist and declared, “I want to go to war with China.” (Presumably, he wants a trade war – not one with bombs and guns. Surely he knows America has enough of those right now.)
Frontrunner Mitt Romney accused China of “stealing … intellectual property, appropriating it at no cost, duplicating and selling it around the world.” A few days later, he wrote in Washington Post editorial, “If I am fortunate enough to be elected president, …I will begin on Day One by designating China as the currency manipulator it is.”
Contrast these confrontational comments with those of former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who after a quip about Herman Cain’s pizza prices, er, tax proposal, said that if we slap China on the wrist, China will slap back. Huntsman added: “We have to get used to the fact that as far as the eye can see into the 21st century, it’s going to be the United States and China on the world stage.”
While acknowledging the seriousness of the allegations against China, Huntsman suggested that lawmakers and leaders in the US should quit playing the blame game and take a more calculating approach that leverages common interests and encourages familiarity.
“We, of course, have to use our trade laws and use them very, very aggressively, but, at the end of the day, we have to find more market opening measures,” he said during the debate. “We’ve got to get more governors from this country to get together with governors from provinces of China, mayors together with mayors, and exploit the opportunities that exist for exporters.”
Huntsman’s suggested approach isn’t exactly new. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have more or less followed this line of thinking.
But in a week filled with anti-China rhetoric, something about Huntsman’s words stood out. Something about his view of the world, honed, in part, from his years in Asia, echoed a wisdom seldom heard in the noisy world of contemporary US politics: Huntsman was calling for his fellow governors, and other leaders, to see their Chinese counterparts as equals.
“That’s sort of Lesson One in human relations,” said Dr. David M. Lampton, Director of the China Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. “With China and Chinese people, I think it’s particularly important – first of all, because they come from a Confucian background that is very sensitive to protocol. [They value] being treated with equality and dignity, [or being] treated ‘appropriately’, as they would say.”
While US leaders are accustomed to getting blasted by their political opponents at home and abroad, Chinese leaders are still warming to the practice – very slowly. Such direct and aggressive discourse is almost never heard in the country, not just because of the state-controlled media and the general refusal of the Communist Party to allow dissent, but because the country’s Confucian values simply do not permit it.
Political disagreement, when it is aired among leaders, occurs behind closed doors, or, at most, inside carefully-worded, sleep-inducing speeches to a mostly rubber-stamp congress. Bashing China on the airwaves might get some Americans to nod their heads in agreement (while they examine the TV remote to see where it was made), but it most likely won’t get Chinese leaders to dial up the value of the Yuan.
One imagines Chinese President Hu Jintao staying up late to watch the Senate vote on C-SPAN and spilling shark-fin soup on his silk pajamas as lawmakers preen for the cameras and call his government names. Seeing China’s reputation sullied before the world probably isn’t going to send him to bed with sweet dreams of America.
Professor Lampton is quick to acknowledge that the US has plenty of legitimate gripes with China. There is certainly a place, he said, for gavel-pounding and toughly-worded speeches from politicians. But there is also a real need to find common ground.
“Discourse in the United States excessively emphasizes differences, and there’s not nearly enough conversation about what common interests we have with China,” he said. “I think if we got the balance right …we would have a much smoother relationship. And China might move ahead faster in some of the other areas we are concerned about.”
Another way to look at it is that China and the US are now sharing a room in the “global dormitory”. China has moved in, unpacked its bags, tacked a few posters on the wall, and taken over one of the bunk beds. The US may still have the top bunk, but it must now learn to live with its new roommate. Calling home to momma isn’t going to make things any better.
A little more humility – and understanding – could go a long way.
Charlie Shifflett spent six years in China, including four at a state-run newspaper in Beijing and two teaching English writing at one of the nation’s premier schools, Renmin University. He is currently the website and communications manager at the international microfinance non-profit Five Talents, in Vienna, Virginia. His “Made In China” column, appearing several times a month, will explore China’s growing influence and what it means for Americans inside and outside of Washington, D.C. Read more by Charlie here . You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.
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