Insights and Analysis

Looking Beyond Hu’s Visit to Washington

January 19, 2011

By Jonathan R. Stromseth

Seasoned observers of Sino-U.S. relations are describing President Hu Jintao’s state visit this week as the most important bilateral event since Deng Xiaoping headed to Washington in 1979 or even since Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972. That may be an exaggeration, but Hu and President Obama are meeting at a critical moment amid growing uncertainty and divisiveness in the relationship. Over the past year, the two countries have not only sparred over such longstanding issues as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, human rights, and currency reform, but also over new problems such as South China Sea navigation rights, exports of rare earth minerals, and North Korean attacks on South Korea. These circumstances have injected a new “realism” into the bilateral relationship, coupled with calls for the two leaders to redefine relations in a manner that acknowledges disagreements while identifying realistic areas of cooperation going forward.

China's President Hu Jintao meets with President Obama in Washington

China's President Hu Jintao meets with President Obama in Washington. Photo: TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

On the eve of his visit to Washington, President Hu declared the two countries should find “common ground” on issues from fighting terrorism and nuclear proliferation to cooperating on clean energy. “There is no denying that there are some differences and sensitive issues between us,” he replied to written questions from the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. “We both stand to gain from a sound China-U.S. relationship, and lose from confrontation.” Meanwhile, in a speech last week on U.S.-China relations, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the summit should produce “real action, on real issues” such as trade, climate change, regional cooperation, and North Korean nuclear proliferation. She also urged China to let its currency appreciate faster, end discrimination against foreign companies, and further open its markets to U.S. manufactured goods and farm products.

While quick progress on these issues could prove elusive, there is a growing consensus that realistic collaboration must be forged to address the global governance challenges of the 21st century and to preserve peace and stability in Asia and the world. The most frequently discussed areas for cooperation are global and regional in nature, and range from climate change to foreign aid policy. However, there also are opportunities to improve bilateral relations through increased dialogues and exchanges on issues of mutual domestic concern. Perhaps surprisingly, since it is rarely covered by the U.S. media, one such area is law and governance.

As I discussed in an earlier edition of In Asia, China has undertaken reforms in recent years focusing on transparency and participation. Although official firewalls continue to limit free access to the Internet, the government has issued national Open Government Information (OGI) regulations that have increased government transparency and expanded access to information for individual citizens. In addition, the government is carrying out legal changes that enhance opportunities for citizens to participate in the formulation of official policies and decisions.

Within China, The Asia Foundation supports these law and governance reforms through cooperation with local government agencies and law schools. In Hunan Province, for instance, we partnered with the provincial Legislative Affairs Office (LAO) from 2008-2010 to enhance the provision of government information and services by the Hunan provincial government and to empower citizens to access information and participate in more open government processes. To make this happen, the Foundation assisted the Hunan LAO to develop local implementation guidelines for the national OGI Regulation, conduct training for government officials on the new legislation, and carry out an innovative public awareness campaign. The project also provided legal aid to citizens on how to better access government information.

Volunteers disseminate government gazettes to public in Hunan province

Volunteers disseminate government gazettes to the public in Hunan province.

As part of this project, we organized an official delegation from Hunan Province in October 2008 to visit California and Washington State on a two-week exchange program that introduced the legal framework for freedom of information practices at different levels of government in the U.S. During the visit, the delegation met with government agencies, academic institutions, NGOs, and the media to discuss open government issues at the local and state levels. In addition, the Hunan delegation was invited to introduce OGI laws and evolving practices in China, and to describe the efforts Hunan was making to develop the first-ever Administrative Procedure Rule in China. This groundbreaking legislation, now in effect, has raised the bar for open policymaking in China by requiring agencies to seek public comment on all major draft decisions, offering detailed provisions for public hearings, and calling on agencies to explain whether public comments were included in a final decision.

Study tour visits Sacramento

Chinese delegation from Hunan Province visits Sacramento on a study tour to observe freedom of information laws and practices.

In January 2010, as part of a broader project supporting administrative law reform in China, we organized an exchange program to Georgetown University Law Center for 14 government officials and legal scholars from Xi’an municipality and Jiangsu and Gansu provinces. The program, which included a field visit to Richmond, Virginia, focused on U.S. administrative law and procedure, including federal rulemaking, judicial review, freedom of information, and public participation. At Georgetown, the participants met with top American legal experts as well as guest speakers from the Federal Trade Commission and from the District of Columbia Commission on Human Rights.

Exchange programs like these, ideally going both directions, can serve as constructive channels for bilateral discussions on law and governance issues. Looking ahead, they could be expanded through the officially sponsored U.S.-China Legal Experts Dialogue or through stepped up non-governmental initiatives. Possible focus areas include environmental protection law, e-rulemaking, and the role of web platforms in facilitating regulatory transparency. It could also be fruitful to promote information-sharing on governance practices and innovations between local communities in the United States and county-level governments in China, which sometimes experiment with governance reforms like participatory budgeting, open government meetings, and the use of citizen satisfaction surveys to evaluate local officials. Local-level exchanges of this kind may not solve global problems, but they could help to build the mutual understanding and trust that will make such cooperation possible and sustainable over the long run.

The study tours mentioned in this piece were organized by The Asia Foundation’s Asian-American Exchange unit.

Jonathan Stromseth is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in China. He can be reached at [email protected].


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InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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