Xi Jinping confronted on human rights in Capitol Hill meeting

A potentially tense exchange between Republican Sen. John McCain and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping on Wednesday provided a glimpse into the personal political skills of heir apparent to China's presidency.

Xi was holding a private meeting with nearly a dozen influential senators, both Republicans and Democrats, when McCain -- who described himself as "the skunk at the garden party" -- questioned the Chinese leader on the country's human rights record.

"I said that we admire all their progress, we admire their economy -- unfortunately we still have Buddhist monks, Tibetans, burning themselves to death, Nobel prize winners under house arrest, and I said I do not understand why you continue to prop up North Korea, which is a threat to the security of the world, and I want to know why you vetoed the resolution on Syria at the U.N. Security Council," McCain said, recounting the closed session.

"His answer was, 'Sen. McCain, your candor is well-known in China.' "

The response drew laughs around the room, those present said, from both the Chinese and U.S. officials.

Xi sought to tamp down concerns about human rights with the standard Chinese response that the U.S. has had its own human rights problems – an answer the Arizona senator dismissed as one he has heard for 40 years and essentially rejects because it puts  China and the United States "on a position of equivalency."

The morning session with top senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), came as the Chinese leader is visiting Washington to expand his relations with top U.S. officials. Xi also met with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

The Senate session was cordial and productive, said a congressional aide familiar with the meeting, and senators pressed the vice president on a number of issues, including human rights and China's currency manipulation.

Lawmakers also raised concerns about trade secrets. They did not press the Chinese leader about working conditions at an Apple facility that have recently come under scrutiny.

The Chinese leader broached the topic of "mutual respect" between the countries, said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who was among those present.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) noted the widening U.S. trade deficit and China's growing list of intellectual property violations, food safety lapses, and human rights abuses, according to an aide. Brown asked how American leaders can assure that U.S. companies that do work in China will not face retaliation for speaking out on these issues.

"Almost every concern that has been expressed was raised," said Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Other senators said their colleagues did not press the Chinese leader as forcefully on those issues as on human rights.

"It was a love-fest," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "If you don't want to challenge their policies, it's a love-fest, isn't it?"

But Grassley found promise in the potential new leader: "He's a little more globally leaning and westward leaning than some of the people they've had lately."