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Nearly a decade ago, when Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state visit to the United States, he told the highest ranking US lawmakers that the two countries should leave a much better relationship to future generations.

As Xi was welcomed to Capitol Hill, he invited Nancy Pelosi to China to “come see for yourself” after the then-House Democratic leader expressed concerns over the country’s human rights records.

Now, after a four-year pause in visits by US lawmakers to China, a bipartisan Senate delegation led by Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has arrived in China for “direct, candid and respectful” conversations with the Chinese leadership, on topics ranging from human rights to reciprocity for US businesses in China.

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The senators met the Shanghai Communist Party secretary, Chen Jining, after landing in the city on Saturday, according to a statement from the Shanghai municipal government.

“China-US relations are the most important bilateral relationship in the world today, and healthy and stable China-US relations are beneficial to both countries as well as to the world,” Chen said.

“We will, as always, create a first-class business environment that is market-oriented, rule of law-oriented and internationalised, and help enterprises to better invest and prosper, and achieve greater development through win-win cooperation,” he added.

Schumer raised the issue of fair competition for some American companies operating in China.

Senator Mike Crapo, the lead Republican on the trip, said earlier this week that the delegation planned to raise market-access concerns on behalf of Micron Technology, according to a Bloomberg report. The US memory chip is under security investigation by China, which has banned its products from key infrastructure projects.

Amid fractured bilateral relations and an ever-hawkish atmosphere within the US Congress, the delegation has requested a meeting with Xi.

The visit will present a “unique” opportunity to lay the groundwork for a potential trip by Xi to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco next month, where a face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden would be expected to take place, according to Ryan Hass, director of the John L. Thornton China Centre at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre, another Washington-based think tank, said the visit was not expected to yield any big changes but would improve general conditions.

“Congress has traditionally been the most hawkish towards China. A trip will not solve the problems, but it will improve the atmosphere, at least for the time being,” Sun said.

Schumer, joined by two other Democrats and three Republicans, is leading the trip amid domestic backlash, with opponents deriding the move as a futile or premature endeavour.

Several senators invited on the trip reportedly declined. Apart from Crapo, the ranking member of the Finance Committee and an Idaho Republican; the final list includes Louisiana Republicans Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy; Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat; and Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat.

The delegation will also visit Japan and South Korea.

On Thursday, before the delegation left, Senator Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, introduced a bill to end taxpayer-funded travel to China. Senator Marco Rubio, another Florida Republican, released a video on the same day cautioning the delegation to not accommodate China.

But the Committee of 100, a non-profit organisation of prominent Chinese Americans, applauded the trip.

“While no single meeting can instantly resolve long-standing challenges, we urge leaders from all nations to approach these meetings with an open and cooperative spirit,” Cindy Tsai, the group’s interim president, said in a statement on Friday.

The trip follows multiple visits to China by senior Biden administration officials in recent months, which Republican lawmakers have also criticised.

Speaking in an interview earlier this week, Schumer said he thought “the Chinese will hear things differently from the elected officials”, according to a report by The New York Times.

“Unlike recent delegations to China, I am proud that we will go as elected representatives of the American people, underscoring how serious Congress is about maintaining America’s global leadership in the 21st century,” he said on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

While the details of the itinerary remain unclear, the Chinese foreign ministry extended a “welcome” to the delegation on Wednesday, expressing hope that the visit will “add positive factors to the growth of China-US relations”.

In recent years, the US Congress has played a growing role in US-China relations. A lengthy series of China-related bills on topics ranging from technology and trade, to human rights and defence have been introduced, with Schumer leading efforts to pass the landmark Chips and Science Act last year.

“Chinese officials likely will use the visit to explain their goals and concerns for Xi’s coming visit to the United States, as well as to lobby Senate leaders to refrain from further legislative activism on China,” said Hass, of Brookings.

Observers have noted that Schumer has a close relationship with Biden. “Schumer speaks regularly with President Biden and his views are taken seriously by the White House,” Hass said.

Robert Sutter, a professor at George Washington University, added that Schumer was likely to be insulated from backlash from fellow lawmakers based on his long record of being tough on China.

“Schumer’s never been pro-China … He can say, ‘I’ve been criticising the Chinese for 25 years, what have you done?'”

According to Schumer, the delegation will focus on securing fair treatment in China for US businesses and advancing America’s national security interests and leadership in critical technologies. It will also raise issues such as China’s human rights record, regional security and stability, preventing the spread of fentanyl, and “the need for cooperation where possible”.

The first US congressional delegation to the People’s Republic of China occurred in 1979. There have been numerous visits by US lawmakers to China since then, particularly after the two legislative bodies established an official exchange mechanism in 1999.

In 2004 and 2006, former Chinese president Hu Jintao received Senate delegations led by Ted Stevens, then-president pro tempore of the Senate – third in line for presidential succession after the vice-president and House speaker.

But this is the highest-ranking delegation to China in more than a decade, and only the second official congressional trip for Schumer since he became Senate majority leader in 2021.

Schumer last visited China in 2011 as part of a congressional delegation led by then-Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, and met Xi, then China’s vice-president and widely touted as the country’s next leader.

According to Ryan Scoville, a law professor at Marquette University who has researched legislative diplomacy, lawmakers could have much to gain from such trips. He said congressional trips were usually made for three reasons: fact-finding, advancing constituent interests, and complementing traditional executive branch diplomacy.

“In some cases, legislators may have better rapport with foreign officials on a personal level, or have insight on Congress’ potential role in the resolution of a contested issue,” he said.

Even during the Cold War, there were international agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union “that expressly called for the parties to facilitate congressional foreign travel to Moscow”, he said.

Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is expected to visit Washington later this month in a bid to pave the way for a potential meeting between the two leaders, The Wall Street Journal reported last week.

The White House is working to arrange a meeting between Xi and Biden next month in San Francisco, according to US officials, though neither Beijing nor Washington have confirmed such a meeting will happen.

The two leaders last met in November 2022 ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.

Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of international relations at Bucknell University, said Beijing’s message so far on the delegation’s visit was “brief but very positive”.

The significance of the US lawmakers’ trip to China – the first one in more than four years – “cannot be downplayed”, he added.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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