Will U.S. Dems Be Tough on China?

The last time U.S. Democrats dominated Congress, a dozen years ago, China was still recovering from the traumatic 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Although the economy was growing at an impressive rate, China was still a net exporter of oil, and Beijing authorities were diplomatic introverts on the international stage. Nancy Pelosi, in those days merely a member of the rank-and-file in the U.S. Congress, was one of China’s most vocal critics. She blasted Beijing for its human-rights record, opposed giving China most-favored-nation trading status for a decade and argued against allowing Beijing to host the 2000 Summer Olympics. In 1991, she and two congressional colleagues held a demonstration in Tiananmen Square, unfurling a banner reading: “To those who died for democracy.”

China is now a much different country, assertive in its foreign policy and increasingly comfortable with showing its clout. Has Pelosi, now poised to become the influential Speaker of the House of Representatives, changed too? Beijing’s leaders hope so. But they fear that Pelosi will bring a new toughness to relations with China, intensifying frictions over everything from trade and the strength of China’s currency, to intellectual-property rights, human rights and Pyongyang’s nuclear program. “It will of course bring about some negative impact in the field of trade and business between China and America,” says Prof. Guo Xiangang of the China Institute for International Studies. “We also understand that she has good political relations with Taiwan.”

There’s already talk from Democrats about tougher trade measures. “I don't think the administration has taken up any issue with the Chinese,” New York Rep. Charles Rangel, who is expected to become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told U.S. reporters Wednesday. “We should insist if they’re going to trade with us it’s going to be fair trade.” With the U.S. trade deficit vis-à-vis China hitting a record $23 billion in September, Rangel told a Wall Street Journal reporter that the United States should “be as angry as hell and try to protect American industry.”

The latest potential sticking point for the Dems will be Beijing’s burgeoning ties to regimes with unsavory reputations and animosity toward Washington. Just two days before the U.S. elections, Beijing played host to heads of state and senior ministers from 48 of Africa’s 53 nations—1,700 VIPs in all, including the presidents of Sudan and Zimbabwe, two of the continent’s more repressive countries. (Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, told China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency that Beijing’s investments in his country lessened his “vulnerability to pressure and political manipulation by the West.”) The meeting was a potent symbol of the gap between China and the United States. Whereas China’s state-run press described the blowout summit as the country’s biggest diplomatic extravaganza since 1949, Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Seyoum Mesfin, complained that the Western media had portrayed it as a conclave of “African dictators who’ve found a new homeland ... to escape Western pressures, to escape accountability and respect for human rights.”

China’s courting of Africa is vital to China’s interests. China is the world’s second largest energy importer (behind the United States), and much of Beijing’s focus on Africa has centered on purchasing oil from countries such as Sudan and Angola. The meeting concluded with a flurry of new deals, from a $1 billion aluminum production facility in Egypt to a $200 million copper project in Zambia. Chinese officials promised to double financial aid to the continent and offer $5 billion in loans and credits through 2009. Premier Wen Jiabao predicted Sino-African two-way trade would top $50 billion this year.

Will Pelosi and the Democrats be pragmatic or principled about relationships like these? Chinese officials are hoping that time and responsibility will have tempered Pelosi’s position. “As a congresswoman, she could say whatever she wanted to say,” says Guo. “But when she’s Speaker, she will represent the interests of the American people, so she might be more careful in handling such issues.” And Chinese analysts point out that President George W. Bush will still be running the show—he’ll seek to maintain continuity in the crucial bilateral relationship for the remainder of his term.

Beijing nevertheless will be watching closely for signs of a backlash in U.S. opinion toward what some see as China’s neocolonialism. It may already have begun in Africa. Earlier this year, anti-Chinese riots broke out among copper-mine workers protesting poor salaries and working conditions at the Chambishi mine in Zambia. The issue of Chinese exploitation was a theme during Zambia’s Sept. 28 elections, when opposition candidate Michael Sata criticized Chinese business practices and promised to restore ties with Taiwan if he were elected.

Sata lost the election, but his ability to tap into growing local resentment was not lost on Beijing. “Zambia was a warning bell for China,” says Africa analyst He Wenping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The lesson of Zambia: “Politicians can use dissatisfaction over [Chinese business practices] to get votes,” she says. That’s a lesson that Chinese authorities should take to heart as they contemplate the prospect of an unprecedented $228 billion trade deficit with America this year—and of the U.S. presidential elections in 2008.