In his opening remarks, Committee Chairman, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) said the U.S.-China relationship is one of the most consequential relationships for U.S. national interests. He added that we must be clear-eyed about China’s long-term goals, which are not necessarily aligned with U.S. national interests.
Corker said, “Short-term gains should not come at the expense of long-term U.S. national interests, values, rule of law, international norms and our alliance commitments, which we have many in the region.”
Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Ranking Member of the Committee, expressed his deep concern at the “deterioration of human rights in China and the environment for civil society and independent voices in that country.” He said, “…we still do not know if the Dalai Lama will be allowed to return to Tibet, we do not know the whereabouts of the Panchen Lama, we do not know whether authorities will release Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo in 2020, we do not know if the people of Hong Kong will be able to continue to exercise genuine autonomy — but we do know Xi Jinping is set to remain in power for at least another five years.”
In his statement, Ambassador-designate Branstad also professed his commitment to human rights. He said: “If confirmed, as Ambassador, I will work every day to represent American values to the leadership of China and the Chinese people at large; values that include upholding human rights for all, a free and open market, a rules-based order in the oceans surrounding China, and the importance of a free press.”
When Senator Cardin asked, “How do you intend to advance our values on human rights, if confirmed as ambassador,” the Ambassador-Designate responded: “Human rights is very important. It is a bedrock of American value system… It would be my intention as ambassador to bring in and to bring up these difficult issues that Chinese leadership may not particularly want to talk about but are important. I am not afraid to do that… When Americans or anyone else in the world is not treated fairly, I as the Ambassador need to bring that issue up to the people in power in Beijing.”
Senator Cardin spoke about the letter he and Senator Marco Rubio sent to Secretary Rex Tillerson on placing a high priority on human rights in our bilateral relationship with China, mentioning the Tibetan people as a case in point. He then asked whether the Ambassador-Designate would be willing to take advice from Congress on individual cases, champion them and work to raise the visibility of these issues.
Governor Branstad responded, “Yes Senator. In fact, as I have gone around and met individually with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a number of those have been brought to my attention. It would be my intent to work with all the members of this committee, and others in the Senate, on these issues. I believe that is part of the responsibility of the Ambassador, to be there, on the ground, in China, and to be an advocate for our interests.”
Senator John A. Barrasso (R-WY) mentioned about his trip to China and Governor Branstad responded saying he was interested in finding out how the trip went, also mentioning that he thought they intended to visit Tibet during the trip.
Senator Barrasso asked how he would balance engaging China on the economic front while also demonstrating our nation’s concern about China’s human rights violation saying it engages in serious human rights abuses, including political and religious repressions.
Governor Branstad responded saying that the United States “has always stood for human rights for all people in the world and I think it is critically important for the Ambassador to make that point, and make that along with other issues.” He added, “I don’t think religious people should be persecuted and so I think it is very important that we protect human rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) wanted a commitment that the Governor would raise the human rights cases with the Chinese government, saying it is “very important for the human rights community.” Governor Branstad responded, “I will do that.” Senator Rubio also conveyed the message that Congress would “continue raising human rights issues.” He further added that it is important to make a distinction between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people. “They are not the same thing,” Senator Rubio said.