China Braces for Political Onslaught

Times Staff Writer

China and all of the U.S. presidential hopefuls have at least one thing in common: their desire to survive the next 12 months of bare-knuckle electioneering relatively unscathed.

In contrast to the candidates, however, China would just as soon stay out of the limelight.

That's not exactly happening. U.S. labor and manufacturing groups accuse the world's most populous nation of stealing jobs, manipulating currency and playing fast and loose with international trade rules.

Responding to critics head-on is hardly an option.

Not only would China attract more attention to itself, it would undermine one of Beijing's mantra responses to critics on issues as diverse as Taiwan, human rights and Tibet: Don't meddle in our internal affairs and we won't meddle in yours.

That said, China is arguably better equipped to handle such criticism on the eve of the 2004 campaign than in any recent U.S. election, with more understanding of the American political system, its pressure points and ways to avoid becoming a whipping boy.

Perhaps the most fundamental change, say experts on both sides of the Pacific, is Beijing's attitude. A younger crew of Beijing leaders now recognizes that verbal attacks by Americans are just an outgrowth of the United States' political process.

"As recently as a few years ago, Beijing saw everything as part of the U.S. not accepting China's rise," said Chu Shulong, an expert in American relations at Qinghua University in Beijing. "Now there's an understanding it's just the election season."

China's new leadership is trying to present a more human face. Foreign Ministry officials hope that the smile and more open ways of the new president, Hu Jintao, will play as well abroad as they have at home. By most accounts, he did well at an unscripted news conference during a recent regional summit in Thailand.

China has also realized that admitting it's not perfect and compromising often yields more over the long term than appearing unhelpful. The change is perhaps best seen in the two areas where China has come under the heaviest political fire recently: jobs and currency.

China last week embraced checkbook diplomacy, signing deals with Boeing and the aircraft engine unit of General Electric worth up to $1.7 billion in response to charges that its $100-billion-plus trade surplus with the U.S. has taken American jobs.

"This is very good for public relations, captures the headlines and helps calm down nerves," said Wang Yong, director of Beijing University's Center for International Political Economy.

On the currency front, Beijing has also adopted a more conciliatory approach. It argues that allowing the value of its currency to float is a good idea, but that moving too quickly could undermine its fragile banking system, benefiting no one. It is also expected to announce a widening of its currency exchange band -- a small move toward free-market convertibility -- perhaps timed to Premier Wen Jiabao's December visit to Washington.

Arguably the biggest factor in keeping U.S.-China relations on track, however, is far beyond Beijing's control.

"The real question is whether the U.S. economy rebounds in the next 10 months," said Bates Gill, a China expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "If American voters sense they're near a recovery, the China issue will fall off the table.... If people think there's not much hope, their anger against China will grow."

China has beefed up its American studies programs in recent years and made a point of staying in touch with present and retired U.S. government officials. Its diplomats are better trained, have greater autonomy in Washington and are feeding more information to Congress.

"Of course a lot of the information is probably thrown in the trash bin, but at least it's there for people who want it," said Jia Qingguo, associate dean of Beijing University's School of International Affairs. "The embassy people also have greater leeway. And they can now invite people to dinner. In the old days, they didn't have any money to work with. Now they have credit cards."

On other fronts, China is edging into the realm of congressional politics. On recent trips, leaders have made a point of visiting Capitol Hill, not just the White House.

Along the way, Beijing has drawn lessons about what to do -- and what not to do -- from the experience of others.

Taiwan, for instance, has bought heavily in the United States. However, because of Japan's more protected market, U.S. multinational companies often line up against Tokyo in a dispute.

In contrast to their attitude toward Japan, multinationals are generally supportive of China because they've got a bigger piece of the action. By some measures, just over half of China's exports are linked to joint ventures, with U.S. companies in the lead, lending weight to Beijing's argument that integration benefits both sides.

One area where China finds it can't follow Japan, South Korea or Taiwan's lead easily is the use of lobbyists and political donations. Even when it's perfectly legal, members of Congress are wary of taking money from China lest it be thrown back in their face politically.

China is coming late to the export-your-way-to-success game. But that's not all bad. After two decades, Americans are more used -- some would say resigned -- to yet another rising Asian economic power.

China argues that U.S. consumers are the ultimate beneficiaries. Most of the jobs created, it says, are low-wage positions that Americans wouldn't want and that keep prices down at retailers such as Wal-Mart.

The lingering image in American minds of tanks rolling through Tiananmen Square remains a huge long-term hurdle for China.

Beijing has sought to counter this by casting itself as a respectable global citizen. Membership in the World Trade Organization, its decision not to veto the U.S.-led Iraq resolution in the United Nations last year and its role in trying to broker a nuclear deal with the North Korean regime are, it maintains, steps in that direction.

And shifting foreign policy is not without risk.

President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province, is pushing the issue of independence prior to elections in March. If Beijing reacts strongly, that could embolden critics who view its changes as cosmetic.

"The best tactic and strategy for China is to stay silent and just watch," Wang offered. . "That said, it's not always easy to do."

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