Ten years ago, US lawmakers publicly accused the China Ocean Shipping Co of being a front for espionage and blocked plans to expand its Long Beach, Calif., port terminal over fears that Chinese spies would use it to snoop on the United States.
By last year, Congress was seeing the state-owned Chinese behemoth in a far kinder light. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., authored a resolution applauding the company for employing thousands of Americans and helping keep the waters of Alaska clean. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., hailed the firm on the House floor, calling its chief executive “a people’s ambassador” to the US after it rescued Boston’s port — and thousands of jobs — when a European shipping line moved out.
The congressional about-face illustrates a dramatic increase in China’s influence on Capitol Hill, where for years its lobbying muscle never matched its ballooning importance in world affairs. Members of Congress, lobbyists and other observers said China’s new prominence is largely the result of Beijing’s increasingly sophisticated efforts to influence events at the centre of US power — and a growing realisation among US lawmakers that China has become a critical economic player across America.
Although many Americans still view China with deep suspicion because of its communist system and human rights record, the results of Beijing’s image-and-influence campaign are clear. Members of Congress “are starting to understand that the Chinese are not communist but that the Chinese are Chinese,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. China is Oregon’s biggest export market after Canada.
“China is an overarching backdrop to almost everything that I am involved with,” said the seven-term congressman, adding that on matters as diverse as the US economy, climate change and energy policy, “China is something that no one can ignore.”
For years, as China steadily rose to global economic and political heights, it all but ignored the US Congress, with outreach to American lawmakers left to friends in the business community. But now China has launched a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort so effective that it is challenging the heralded efforts of nemesis Taiwan.
A decade ago, US politicians of all stripes routinely subjected China to attacks. Now acts of benevolence are more likely — such as a resolution commemorating the 2,560th birthday of Chinese philosopher Confucius, which the House overwhelmingly approved in October.
“There was originally this kind of anti-communist view of China,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who in 1979 became the first US mayor to visit China when she ran San Francisco. “That’s changing. ... China is a socialist country but one that is increasingly becoming capitalistic.”
The new openness toward China is often subtle and not shared by all. But an undeniable evolution is taking place, congressional staffers and analysts said, as members of Congress, many with increasing numbers of large and small businesses in their districts that depend on trade with China, are now far more likely to kill or water down measures opposed by Beijing.
While China maintains a huge trade surplus with the US, American exports to China have surged in recent years. In 2008, according to the US-China Business Council, exports to China grew in 85 percent of congressional districts. China is now the third-biggest market for US goods, after Canada and Mexico.
“People in Congress are not stupid,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “A few years ago, China-bashing was costless. Now they will get phone calls from worried CEOs. China is creating jobs in their congressional districts.”
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