U.S.–China Interparliamentary Exchange: Valuable, and Possibly Easier Under Democrats

The main organizer of the U.S.-China Interparliamentary Exchange said Sept. 6 he won’t be completely disappointed if his party loses control of the U.S. Congress in November. Even though House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) created and funded the exchange, “it would be even easier with the Democrats in charge, though I pray against that,” said Matthew Szymanski, chief of staff for the House Committee on Small Business and the U.S.–China exchange.

Szymanski, who was the main speaker at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s China Program, has been a key organizer for the exchange since it was created in 1999. He enthusiastically described the benefits of interparliamentary exchanges, noting that they educate legislators and help them better understand China. “You can’t teach American members of Congress about China from Washington,” he declared. “It’s not going to happen.”

In response to a question from Robert Sutter of Georgetown University, Szymanski said that because “Republicans are not internationally-minded … What happens if the House flips? There’s even greater potential.”

It’s a bit unclear to me why this is the case. According to Szymanski, funding is not a problem at all. He gave rough numbers, saying about $500,000 has built up from Hastert’s appropriations, and most incoming delegations only cost about $50,000 each. Outgoing exchange, he says, is already funded by other parts of the U.S. government.

Dealing with China out in the open, however, can be politically awkward for some members, he said. Szymanski, who works for Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.), said Chinese delegations usually want to visit Manzullo’s home district, but they have to explain that it would be politically difficult to do so. The Northern Illinois district is home to an industrial economy that is currently in competition with the low prices in China, and voters there might see working with China as a betrayal.

Indeed, Szymanski is not all positive on China. “I’ve got lots of worries about what the rise of China means for the United States,” he said, echoing what I would call the conventional wisdom frame of China policy in Washington. He sounded like an ’80s Japan alarmist, though, when he said: “I’m telling you that the people we see rising up in Asia are going to kick our—” he stopped, and pointed to his rear. So he’s forcing his kids to learn Mandarin.

Some other points:

  • Interestingly, Szymanski said that U.S. members of Congress don’t seem to mind that they are dealing with leaders who aren’t elected. Instead the key is “tremendous face to face contact and education,” he said.
  • He recalled the first Chinese delegation of staff (not legislators) to the U.S. last May, saying that the Chinese seemed genuinely interested in finding out how the U.S. Congress works: “I don’t think they were manipulating us. … They asked extremely complex questions about how a legislature like ours works.”
  • He was sometimes dismissive of U.S. and European watchdog groups and the U.S. State Department, saying, “There is nothing that can happen that’s enough to satisfy Western watchdogs.” He emphasized, however, that progress is being made on human rights issues in China, even if slowly.
  • On trips to China, Szymanski said he has had unfettered access to wherever he asked to go. On trips to Tibet, he was allowed to stop at random and talk to the people there. He seemed to like Tibet.
  • He framed U.S. foreign policy as sometimes myopic, saying that because of “our obsession with the Middle East … we’re neglecting much of the rest of the world.” I hear ya.

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