November 19, 2005

To Win Friends, China Takes Its Message on a U.S. Road Trip

Nation Steps Up Diplomacy,
Hires Big Lobbying Firm;
An Offer to Cut Red Tape
Mr. Zhou Goes to Schenectady
November 18, 2005; Page A1

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Zhou Wenzhong was on the road again, this time in central Iowa, which he calls "a heart state." A silk scarf tossed over his shoulder, the new Chinese ambassador to the U.S. came to fiddle with wooden turkey callers and sniff animal-feed additives, while touting China as a land of opportunity that just wants to be America's friend.

It's a hefty challenge, but Mr. Zhou picked his latest destination -- the third state he's visited in four weeks -- with pinpoint care. He came to Iowa, he says, "because this is where America's political battles are settled." One morning on his three-day visit, he traveled with aides in a minibus for a five-hour roundtrip to Cedar Rapids, the district of Rep. James Leach, a Republican who chairs the Asian subcommittee within the House International Relations committee.

"It is important to have friends, especially out here," said the 60-year-old Mr. Zhou (pronounced "Joe"), as he passed grain silos and shorn corn fields on a late autumn drive.

After years of often ham-handed diplomacy, China is trying as never before to win friends and influence people, not just in Des Moines but in Denver, Schenectady, N.Y., Minneapolis -- and above all, Washington. The reasons are clear. China must maintain its scorching economic growth to pull its massive population out of poverty and become more of a global power. To do that, it must keep the peace with the U.S., its largest trading partner and the catalyst for millions of its jobs.

China has gone through a rough patch with the U.S. in the past few months, raising concerns in Beijing and making Mr. Zhou's job all the more urgent. Both sides have been scrambling to mend frayed edges in preparation for President Bush's meetings this weekend in Beijing with Chinese President Hu Jintao. But tensions between the world's sole superpower and its fastest rising new power aren't fading.

The Pentagon warned this summer that China's military buildup could upset the balance of power in Asia. In August, an impassioned Congress effectively killed a proposed takeover of California's Unocal Corp. by Chinese oil and gas company Cnooc Ltd. U.S. lawmakers are threatening to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports unless Beijing moves further to revalue its currency.

Mr. Zhou says his job is "to increase the ups" in a relationship plagued by many ups and downs. "Most important," he says, "is that we're seen as a friend and not as a rival."

U.S. diplomats and lawmakers well remember that China, as recently as the late 1990s, would berate the U.S. as "the global hegemon" for meddling in other countries' affairs. At low moments, such as after the downing of a U.S. surveillance plane over China in 2001, the testiness cropped up. Even today, Chinese diplomats still march into the State Department to deliver formal letters of protest over U.S.-Taiwan policy or criticism of China's treatment of the Falun Gong spiritual sect. U.S. officials complain that private sessions with the Chinese remain overly formal, with too many prepared texts.

But China is at last showing some diplomatic flair as it tries to tweak U.S. opinion. "China's diplomats have gotten a lot more confident and a lot more sophisticated," says Joseph Prueher, former U.S. ambassador to Beijing, whose term put him at the center of the bitter spat over the downed U.S. spy plane.

The Chinese government, partly to counter Taiwan's own well-fueled public-relations juggernaut in the U.S., has begun to hire high-priced lobbyists and is bringing in a younger, savvier crop of diplomats to work the halls of the U.S. Congress. Its embassy is reaching out to Washington's many think tanks to solicit guidance, while top diplomats like Ambassador Zhou also work the hinterlands. China's embassy itself will soon become a symbol of the country's new presence in Washington: Since 1979, when the countries normalized relations, Chinese diplomats have worked out of a dreary former hotel. But in April, China broke ground on a new embassy, designed by I.M. Pei and expected to be the city's largest when finished in 2008.

Part of the charm offensive is cultural. China is promoting the teaching of Mandarin in U.S. schools, and the construction of pagodas, Chinese cultural centers and Asian gardens in U.S. cities. Last month, Beijing sponsored a Festival of China at Washington's Kennedy Center, flying in 800 ballet dancers, acrobats, musicians and singers. It cost China's government $2 million.

Chinese Culture Minister Sun Jiazheng told a gathering of U.S. executives and diplomats that the festival had a central message: "That China brings to America love and not threat." He told interviewer Charlie Rose that China wants the American and Chinese people to "have a mind-to-mind talk."

Beijing has also begun aggressively seeking friends in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. That, at times, complicates attempts to foster warmer ties with the U.S., especially with outreach to countries that have estranged relations with the U.S., such as Iran and Venezuela.

Yet China has shown a nimbleness in dealing with major irritants in its U.S. relations. In July, Beijing slightly revalued its currency, after months of U.S. cajoling. Last week, it agreed to a three-year limit on some textile exports to the U.S. China has also become more active within organizations such as the United Nations, where for years it was a famous abstainer on key resolutions.

A Retail Approach

The British-educated Mr. Zhou, who arrived in Washington in April, has taken a distinctly retail approach to the job. He set the goal of meeting with all 535 members of Congress, though he declines to offer a running tally. He wants to visit all 50 states as ambassador, and has at least 40 to go. (He traveled extensively in the U.S. during earlier, more junior postings in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington.)

Mr. Zhou was often the blunt deliverer of bad news to U.S. diplomats in the past. As ambassador to Australia in 1999, he warned the U.S. it didn't have carte blanche to intervene in other countries' affairs for human-rights reasons, saying Washington's "Kosovo formula" for imposing rules on the former Yugoslavia could never apply to Taiwan. He was China's deputy foreign minister in 2001, when a Chinese fighter plane crashed after colliding with a U.S. spy plane. The Chinese pilot was killed and the U.S. plane was forced to land in China. Mr. Zhou repeatedly issued Beijing's demand that President Bush apologize. "The United States," he said, "should face reality, take responsibility and apologize to China."

President Bush eventually did send a letter saying the U.S. was sorry for both the death of a Chinese pilot and that the U.S. plane had entered Chinese airspace without permission.

Yet in Washington he's become a champion listener, and an example of China's subtler approach to foreign policy. At the height of the furor over Cnooc's bid for Unocal, Mr. Zhou went to a dinner with representatives of about 20 major corporations at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. For 2½ hours, the guests showered him with complaints and concerns about China, ranging from brand theft to discriminatory tax rules. The ambassador diligently scribbled notes.

"It was a tough-love message, and he was there to receive it," said Myron Brilliant, the Chamber's top Asia hand. "He didn't fight it or argue, but simply said he would take it back to China."

Not long after, U.S. officials say, Ambassador Zhou recommended to Beijing that the government drop its support for the Cnooc bid. "He could smell it was a loser," says one Bush administration official. Mr. Zhou declines to comment on the Cnooc spat, other than to say that "it all became very politicized."

Lawmakers tell similar stories on Capitol Hill. "He told us straight out to give it to him with the bark off," says Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican who co-chairs a new congressional "working group" on China. At a September meeting, Mr. Kirk and other lawmakers told the ambassador that the mood in Congress was turning against China. To deflect anger, they said, Beijing had to take steps such as freeing its currency and cracking down on patent piracy.

"To my pleasure, he was not offended," says Mr. Kirk.

Still, Mr. Zhou's frustration with official Washington is one reason he hits the road as often as he can to push China's cause. Chinese diplomats contend Congress is out of step with popular opinion. They cite a recent poll commissioned by the Committee of 100, a group representing prominent Chinese Americans. It found only 19% of congressional staffers have a positive view of China, compared with 59% of Americans overall.

"I appeal to you to talk to your congressman and senators," Mr. Zhou told an audience at the Des Moines Marriott on a recent day. Among those sipping cocktails during the speech were state senators, soybean farmers, bankers and manufacturers, many with interests in China.

On his Iowa trip, Mr. Zhou brought four assistants, two from China's Chicago consulate. All were fluent English speakers and all were under 35.

The message wherever Mr. Zhou goes is that trade with China is good for the U.S. and protectionism will only harm both sides. "What I've learned here augers very well for Iowa and China," he told the crowd, citing U.S. farm sales to China.

In Cedar Rapids the next day, Mr. Zhou hustled into a boardroom at Hunter's Specialties, a family-owned hunting-supply company that now makes more than a third of its equipment in China. Owner David Forbes launched into a litany of complaints about how hard it is to get components into China from other Asian suppliers.

Mr. Zhou interrupted him. "Let me introduce my commercial counselor in Chicago," he said, pointing to a young diplomat, Wang Weijia, in a pinstriped suit. "He will help you cut the red tape."

Mr. Wang jumped up to present his business card to Mr. Forbes, who looked overjoyed. "I'll be calling you," Mr. Forbes said.

A Sold-Out Speech

Last month, Mr. Zhou also traveled to upstate New York, where he touted big-ticket purchases by China from local subsidiaries of General Electric Co. in a speech before the U.S.-China Peoples Friendship Association, a nonprofit group. He spent three days in Denver the next week, visiting companies, dropping by a Mandarin class at a local private school, and extolling the value of deeper trade ties at a sold-out speech before the Denver World Affairs Council.

Mr. Zhou was still in Beijing last fall as deputy foreign minister when Chinese officials first began to weigh whether to hire a formal lobbying arm in Washington, a move the Chinese government has long resisted. China had paid, reluctantly, for limited legal assistance in the U.S., but spurned calls to spend more on lobbyists.

But Mr. Zhou and the Foreign Ministry relented in early summer, as calls for punitive trade legislation against China mounted in Congress. In July, the embassy signed up one of Washington's biggest lobbying outfits, Patton Boggs, to open doors and smooth relations with U.S. lawmakers. Patton Boggs -- which has done similar work for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan -- declines to talk about the contract, which calls for the embassy to pay a $22,000 monthly retainer, according to documents filed with the U.S. Justice Department.

Chinese companies, too, are getting into the act. Cnooc, which is largely government-owned, set a new Chinese standard for seeking lobbying help this summer when it hired Washington law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and five other legal, lobbying and public-relations firms to push its cause in Washington.

Still, China lags far behind much smaller Asian neighbors in spending on lobbyists. Since 1998, Taiwan -- which has a five-story "representative office" in Washington but no formal diplomatic relations with the U.S. -- has spent about $1 million a year on hired representation, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based research group. During the same time, China spent about a third as much. The Patton Boggs contract won't push China's annual government spending on legal and lobbying help in the U.S. above $600,000.

The embassy has made a point in recent months of seeking free help, too, especially from China scholars stashed among Washington's think tanks.

In September, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick accused China of creating a "cauldron of anxiety" and urged Beijing to become a responsible "stakeholder" in the world community. The remarks, delivered in a speech in New York, caused near panic among China's U.S. diplomatic corps, according to Chinese diplomats and China scholars. Chinese officials knew the diplomatic meaning of "rival" and "ally" and even "competitor."

But stakeholder?

"What is meant by stakeholder here?" queried a senior Chinese diplomat in an email the next day to one Washington China scholar. "Is China not one already? And is it of a positive, neutral or negative connotation, or both positive and negative?"

Mr. Zhou has come to embrace the term and heralds it as a sign of improved relations. Asked to describe in a sentence how the Bush administration now sees China he says, "We are a stakeholder."

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