US Congress Gets Adversarial with Hu Jintao

January 21, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) sits across from Chinese Communist Party Chairman Hu Jintao at the U.S. Congress on Jan. 20. Around the table are a bipartisan group of lawmakers and members of Hu's entourage. (Courtesy of Speaker John Boehner's office)
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) sits across from Chinese Communist Party Chairman Hu Jintao at the U.S. Congress on Jan. 20. Around the table are a bipartisan group of lawmakers and members of Hu's entourage. (Courtesy of Speaker John Boehner's office)
WASHINGTON—It all started when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), made a gaffe during a televised appearance, calling China’s top leader Hu Jintao a dictator.

During an interview with Jon Ralston on Face To Face, Reid had been discussing the tactics of bipartisan compromise that resulted in lawmakers extending the Bush-era tax cuts last December.

"Jon, I am going to go back to Washington tomorrow and meet with the president of China. He is a dictator," Reid said. "He can do a lot of things through the form of government they have."

Reid was comparing the sometimes messy politics of American democracy with the quick decision making achievable through one-party state rule, such as in China.

"Maybe I shouldn't have said dictator,” Reid said in retrospect. “But they have a different type of government than we have, and that is an understatement."

The two most powerful legislators, Reid, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), reportedly declined invitations from president Obama to attend the lavish state dinner honoring Hu Jintao on Wednesday night, opting for separate meetings with Hu on Thursday.

During a brief photo op when Reid met Hu just outside the Senate Chamber, CNN’s Dana Bash called out, “Sen. Reid, what do you expect to accomplish from the man you called a ‘dictator?’” reported Politico.

Neither Hu, nor Reid responded to the outburst. The media had been instructed not to ask questions, and that misbehaving would result in being forced to leave, Politico reported.

Newly elected Speaker Boehner, Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and others met with Hu on Thursday for breakfast. After the meeting, Boehner issued a statement highlighting human rights concerns he had raised with Hu.

“We raised our strong, ongoing concerns with reports of human rights violations in China, including the denial of religious freedom, and the use of coercive abortion as a consequence of the ‘one child’ policy,” according to a statement from Boehner’s office.

Reid’s office, on the other hand, played down human rights in favor of a host of issues from Chinese currency concerns to the importance of enhancing investment in tourism and energy in Reid’s home state of Nevada.

A History of Bold Statements

While administration officials exercise the careful and sensitive diplomacy of the U.S.-China relationship, Congress has a history of being much more vocal in criticizing and even condemning China on issues ranging from religious persecution to currency manipulation.

In March 2010, a resolution “recognizing the continued persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China … and calling for an immediate end to the campaign to persecute, intimidate, imprison, and torture Falun Gong practitioners” passed with 412 Ayes and 1 Nay.