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Former Ambassador on U.S.-China Relations: ‘Divorce Is Not an Option’

A portrait of the late leader Mao Zedong hangs in Tiananmen Square. The city is preparing for the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing in October. Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

China’s leaders cannot even set a date for their big party congress, and the presumptive heir apparent only recently surfaced — in a photo — after a two-week absence that prompted speculation about his health and in-fighting in the Communist party. Even so, a recent U.S. ambassador to Beijing describes the incoming leaders of China as “a pretty impressive bunch.”

Jon Huntsman, who left his post in Beijing last year to campaign unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination, offered his upbeat view of China and its leadership to an auditorium of students and Washington China hands Monday night at George Washington University. The session was the most recent amid a sprouting of think tank gatherings seeking to handicap the 18th Party Congress, the first in which an anointed choice of Deng Xiaoping is not waiting in the wings.

Of Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as party leader whenever the congress convenes, Huntsman said: “He is comfortable in his own skin. He’s a good politician who can handle the PLA (army) and the princelings (the children of the original revolutionaries now taking the top posts in China).”

At the session sponsored by the Asia Society and GWU’s Elliott School, Huntsman amply demonstrated why he has as many or more admirers in Beijing and in diplomatic circles than he had voters in the New Hampshire GOP primary. Of the United States, he said, “we can’t seem to formulate a world view.” And without mentioning GOP nominee Mitt Romney by name, he told the audience he refused in the campaign “to throw red meat,” a reference to Romney’s promise on his first day in office to impose trade sanctions on China for their currency manipulation.

Even on that volatile issue, Huntsman said the global recession stopped China’s efforts to allow their currency trade at market rates but predicted they would in the coming months and years.

His upbeat predictions for Chinese political reform had some China hands in the audience shaking their heads in doubt. In a country of 600 million Internet users, he said defining a role for the web, now censored and monitored by an army of 200,000 government watchers, will be a key element of reform along with more democracy within the party. He said he anticipated Xi would launch a reform agenda within two or three years, once he has consolidated power.

As he did on the campaign trail, the former Utah governor displayed both his western self-deprecating informality along with his international finesse. He appeared in a blazer, open collar white shirt, designer jeans and cowboy boots with thick two-inch heels. As audience members gathered around after his talk, he easily switched between Mandarin and Cantonese.

The United States and China, he said, now have a relationship that has gone from bi-lateral to global, covering almost every world issue.

“We need to humanize the relationship. It is a marriage in which divorce is not an option.”

Huntsman said he anticipated the critical Standing Committee of the Politburo would be kept to seven men (one female candidate probably won’t make the final cut). And he described them as sophisticated and running government departments staffed with people with a deep understanding of the United States.

“They are all marked by a streak of pragmatism,” Huntsman said, with an overriding goal of “how to keep the party salient.”

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, will be watching wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he’ll write dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.

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