WASHINGTON – The world will be watching China closely as it gears up to host the Olympics this year. So will U.S. lawmakers, who hope to use the attention generated by the summer games to highlight their complaints about China's government.
Lawmakers, in hearings and in legislation, will scrutinize what some see as unfair Chinese economic policies, its secretive military buildup and its human rights abuses. China already has been targeted by presidential candidates.
"The Chinese want this `Show' — with a capital `S' — to showcase their government to the world," Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said in an interview. Congress, he said, should use that as leverage to "bring maximum scrutiny and light to their egregious human rights abuses."
Smith champions legislation that would stop U.S. technology companies from aiding countries that restrict Internet access. American Internet companies have been denounced for turning a blind eye to abuse in China so they can crack that lucrative market.
The Bush administration's criticism of China is usually muted. Lawmakers, however, are more vocal in asserting that China has failed to live up to its responsibilities as an emerging superpower.
With the presidential campaign heating up, "2008 promises to be a trying year" for U.S.-China ties, wrote Brad Glosserman and Bonnie Glaser, analysts with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. "There will be a temptation to make China a foreign policy issue or a scapegoat for problems in economic and security policy."
U.S. manufacturers say Beijing's low valuation of the yuan, its currency, makes Chinese goods cheaper in the United States and American products more expensive in China. Lawmakers are considering bills that would punish China for what they contend are predatory trade practices.
Lawmakers also worry about China's rapid military spending and the country's apparent secretiveness about its military aims. The House Armed Services Committee will hold hearings this year with top U.S. commanders in the Pacific, where China will be a major topic.
Last year, Washington criticized China's test of an anti-satellite weapon as a provocative militarization of space. The two countries also sparred after China barred the USS Kitty Hawk from entering Hong Kong for a port call.
But it is Taiwan that could cause the most friction. Taiwan split from China in 1949, although Beijing continues to see the island as part of its territory. China has pledged to keep the island from independence by force if necessary.
Reps. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., and Tom Tancredo, R-Col., are among sponsors of a resolution that would voice Congress' support for Taiwan's membership in the United Nations, which both China and the Bush administration oppose as a provocation. A referendum, scheduled to be held with Taiwan's presidential election in March, asks voters if they would support the island's application to join the United Nations under the name Taiwan, rather than under its long-standing official title, Republic of China.
The Olympics, said Mac Zimmerman, Tancredo's chief of staff, provide "a good opportunity for Taiwan and its friends in Congress to raise the profile of the Taiwan issue."
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank, noted worry that congressional support for Taiwan's U.N. membership could encourage Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian to do something that China would see as a push for independence. Chen is trying to carve out a non-Chinese identity for the island.
"Hopefully, they won't do too much," Cossa said of Congress, "because nothing makes things worse than congressional efforts to make them better."