How can we have confidence the national relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China is based on facts and observations, not just emotion and political rhetoric?  Learning about a subject from a factual basis by choosing to take time to read, listen to, and observe a wide spectrum of the information and activities around us is something an individual person can easily choose to do (though implementation is difficult).  When we don’t, we risk ignorance, allowing ourselves to be influenced by whatever opinions and attitudes get sent our way by others, or through the narrow selection of only a few sources which we choose because they support our opinions.

Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA), co-founder and leader of the U.S. China Working Group along with counterpart Charles Boustany (R-LA), is one of the most visionary leaders in Congress working hard to raise the level of intellectual rigor and informed perspective on U.S./China national issues.

Which of these two behaviors best reflects the learning behavior of the U.S. government?  How do organizations, especially large ones such as the U.S. Congress, learn?  They learn through institutions dedicated to the task of educating those organizations.  How can we have any confidence that a given organization is informed by a spectrum of facts and observations, not just the interaction of their own – supposedly professional – opinions and selective sources?  We can have that confidence when we know the institutions created to provide informed perspectives are functioning, healthy, and engaged.  Even though any individual congressional leader might be well informed, we can’t know for certain the Congress as a whole is operating from a perspective of good information and analysis if we’re not sure the necessary institutions exist and function properly.

The good news is that such an institution exists.  The bipartisan U.S. China Working Group is the institution dedicated to the education of the U.S. Congress through meetings and briefings with leaders in the US/China relationship.  Many other institutions, such as the National Committee on U.S. China Relations, and departments, such as the State and Defense Departments, also provide a great deal of information to our American lawmakers on China-related subjects.  But only the U.S. China Working Group has the singular focus of making lawmaker education on the issues its business.  Started in 2005, it seeks to create a diplomatic relationship with China and avoid conflict by keeping the Congress more informed on U.S./China issues and working with executive departments, congressional leadership, the academic community, and key business leaders to develop a comprehensive strategy.  We trust that in the years to come this working group will not only gain support and membership among the Congress but will also expand its sources of information and perspective in order to provide comprehensive fact-based perspectives and thereby accurately educate congressional leaders on the issues.

The bad news is there is a strong bipartisan opinion in the Congress that China is a country to be hated and mistrusted, and this trend makes the U.S. China Working Group’s efforts all the more critical, yet difficult.  Currently in the last weeks of the Presidential election as we are, our country is now even more than usual subjected to political rhetoric from our national leaders that attacks and blames China for a variety of our national ills and worries.  Those who understand, on both sides of the Pacific, the sophisticated and multi-faceted nature of the U.S./China relationship cringe when they hear this election rhetoric.  And the trend of such statements helping politicians grab the spotlight and media attention only further encourages such behavior.

To work against this trend, the working group has hosted a number of visits of Chinese and American leaders with one another.  Recently, this past August, a group of congressional staffers visited China and in 2011 a bipartisan group of five congressmen visited; both trips were sponsored by the National Committee on US China Relations.  Such efforts must grow to envelop a greater percentage of the Congress and a broader spectrum of the US/China relations community.  The lack of direct counterpart relationships between the American and Chinese legislative bodies has prevented deeper communication and understanding, to say nothing of real trust.  We can hope such direct relationships may appear in the coming post-leadership turnover era.  No one is holding their breath, of course.  While there is much to be happy about regarding the work of the U.S. China Working Group, we nevertheless must continue to develop this and other institutional connections between national and subnational leaders in both countries.  Together, we must push for and create more institutions for informed perspective and encourage well-informed participants in the subnational dialogue to make and take engagement opportunities with these institutions, particularly as they may inform the national level dialogue.