Pressed on human rights, Chinese president gives stiff-arm to Congress

Chinese President Hu Jintao gave congressional leaders a stiff-arm Thursday when they pressed him on human rights during a private meeting in Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office.

Boehner pressed Hu on reports that the Chinese government has forced women to have abortions under the “one-child policy.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) criticized China’s incarceration of human-rights activist and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.

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Hu rebuffed the pressure by telling the leaders: “You have to respect the differences we have in our respective cultures,” according to a lawmaker who attended the meeting.

“What he means is ‘We’re going to handle [human rights] our way and you’re going to handle it your way,’ ” said Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.), co-chairman of the U.S.-China House Working Group, who attended the meeting.

Hu did most of the talking during his meeting with Boehner and Pelosi. The Chinese president spent nearly 25 minutes answering Boehner’s opening statement and questions, leaving Pelosi little time at the end to press her points.

The meeting with Pelosi and Boehner was one of the last events during a turbulent trip to Washington in which Hu was dogged by questions about human rights. 

President Obama pressed Hu on the subject during their one-on-one visit, and also publicly urged his counterpart to allow more freedoms in China. The reception for Hu on Capitol Hill, however, was chillier than at the White House, where Hu received a 21-gun salute and a state dinner. 

In a snub, Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) skipped Wednesday's state dinner in Hu’s honor. Pelosi did attend the dinner. 

Reid also made headlines in a television interview in Nevada by calling Hu a dictator.

On Thursday, Reid shook hands with Hu and smiled for photographers before stepping into a private meeting just off the Senate chamber. McConnell was in Kentucky at four different Chamber of Commerce events, according to a spokesman. 

After he and Pelosi met with Hu, Boehner said in a statement that he called for China to do more to enforce intellectual property law and curtail its aggressive behavior.

“When it comes to guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of all her citizens, including and especially the unborn, Chinese leaders have a responsibility to do better, and the United States has a responsibility to hold them to account,” Boehner said.

Pelosi said leaders also discussed U.S.-China trade relations, as well as human rights, religious rights and the Chinese occupation of Tibet. She also highlighted her discussion of Liu.

“I had the opportunity to relay the concerns by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that Chinese human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo was not permitted to travel to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in December, and about the continued detention of Liu and his wife, Liu Xia, for peacefully exercising their rights to free expression,” Pelosi said.

But President Hu showed little willingness to give ground on the touchy subject, downplaying American complaints over human-rights abuses as cultural differences.

Much of the public discussion after the meeting centered on human rights, but behind closed doors, the leaders focused on economic relations, which have been a source of tension on both sides.

“The top issues that were raised were trade and intellectual property in particular,” said Boustany. “Most of the time was spent on the commercial relationship.”

Major U.S. companies such as Microsoft have pressed Congress to crack down on China’s flagrant flouting of intellectual property laws.

Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, met with members of the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday to discuss how many jobs and how much money his company has lost because of Chinese intellectual property theft, according to congressional sources.

Hu was more responsive to leaders' concerns about intellectual property than to their challenges on human rights.

He assured Boehner and Pelosi that China’s government was taking steps to tighten regulations and improve the rule of law, according to Boustany.

It was perhaps the most substantive concession of the meeting.

In turn, Hu asked for congressional leaders to ease restrictions on the export of advanced technology to China.

Lawmakers, however, say the reluctance of the U.S. to export high technology stems more from the reservations of American companies worried about intellectual property theft.

Leaders also raised concerns about China’s policy of indigenous innovation, whereby U.S. and European companies are required to develop and patent intellectual property in China to qualify for government procurement contracts.

Another subject of disagreement was the preferential tax treatments that China employs to keep U.S. competitors out of its 1.3 billion-person market.

In response to Boehner’s concerns about North Korean aggression, Hu touted China’s efforts to decrease tensions on the Korean peninsula after North Korean forces shelled the island of Yeonpyeong.

Hu told leaders he is eager to re-enter six-party talks intended to freeze North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons.

Boehner and Pelosi did not discuss the Chinese military’s recent test flight of a new stealth fighter jet or other national security-related issues, such as China’s support of Iran and its aggressive claim of “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea.

Steven Orlins, president of the National Committee on U.S.-China relations, said U.S. leaders have difficulty understanding the perspective of Chinese leaders who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, a time of shattering instability that cost millions of Chinese their lives.

Orlins said Hu’s answer to congressional leaders “is shorthand for saying the experiences of the Chinese leadership are different” from those of U.S. leaders.

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