Political campaigns bring out the worst in Florida's members of Congress. I can see the influence of the campaign season and a weak economy in the recent vote by the House of Representatives to "punish" China for what it sees as an undervalued currency; the Florida delegation voted 22-2 in favor of the grandstanding legislation. Such business-as-usual campaign politics in Florida are easily and constantly misinterpreted outside of our borders, and end up harming all parties.
I am an advocate of vigorous debates about international trade and foreign policy, but the demagoguery that has crept into congressional deliberations on U.S.-China relations — during the recent currency bill vote, China's leadership was derided as a "clique of gangsters" — is unhealthy for our state, our country, for the international system we have championed and led since World War II, and for the people of the United States and China.
The problem with playing the political game of "China-bashing" to raise funds and woo voters is that often China doesn't realize it's a sport. Pundits in Florida watch the congressional votes against China and opine that the legislation is likely going to end up dying in the Senate (like the biannual politically charged vote on the "Armenian Genocide" resolution). Floridians understand that this is politics as theater. But in China, where they don't understand the clear difference between resolutions and bills or binding and nonbinding, and don't have a similar separation of powers between President Hu Jintao and the members of the National People's Congress, the nuances of our system are quite literally lost in translation. The Chinese walk away thinking that Americans view them as gangsters, because that's what they read in our newspapers.
That is not to say that our policy toward China should be one of passivity or complacence. We need to have more serious and open discussions about these issues, not congressional hearings that set the "American worker" versus the "Chinese government" and create false dichotomies that tragically simplify important issues. For the same reason that we bemoan the lack of civility between Democrats and Republicans today, we should also be wary of leaving civility at the wayside when dealing with an extraordinarily complex country like China, which claims the world's second-highest GDP as of 2010 but whose citizens barely crack the top 100 in GDP per capita.
We forget, in our rush to score political points, how much a developing China is a driver of the global economy. Many U.S. states are in fact enjoying booming trade with China. In total, 47 states have registered triple-digit export growth to China since 2000, and 19 states now export more than $1 billion to China each year. In fact, Florida, so ready to bash China, is one of the few states that have yet to learn how to export to China, the fastest-growing market in the world. We have the country's fourth-largest economy, but we don't even crack the top 15 in states exporting to China. We should be focusing on developing trade relationships and export promotion programs that make Florida more attractive to the investors and consumers of China, not trying to futilely restore the American dream by attacking China with words full of bravado and absent of substance.
I am trying to do my part to foster civil dialogue and debate as the founder of a political institute at the University of Central Florida. I am hosting a daylong symposium in April 2011 that will tackle the key issues in the U.S.-China relationship, to be presented to nearly 1,000 students and to be broadcast over the Web to students and policymakers around the world. We won't whitewash the issues, and we won't exclude viewpoints. We will invite Chinese and American politicians, academics and businessmen to have a free and unfettered debate. And I believe that we will learn more, at the end of the day, than anyone ever could through an exercise in political demagoguery. Importantly, we will still respect each other when the day is over.
Too many politicians believe that playing off the fears of voters is the best path toward election, not realizing that the entire world is listening to their harsh or irresponsible statements. Politicians are public servants and have a duty to tell voters the truth. The truth of the matter here is that China is a serious competitor to the United States. But there are opportunities for both parties to benefit. Before we vent our anger at China through legislation and insults on the record, we need to have a much more serious, substantial and public debate to educate Floridians about the true, complex, evolving nature of U.S.-China relations, and our state's current and future role in the "world's most important bilateral relationship."
Lou Frey served in Congress as a Republican representing Florida from 1969-1979, and is a past president of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress. He is founder and president of the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida. He has traveled to China in three different decades.