Political campaigns bring out the worst in members of Congress. I can see the influence of the campaign season and a weak economy in the House of Representatives’ recent vote to “punish” China for what it sees as an undervalued currency. But business-as-usual campaign politics in the US are easily and constantly misinterpreted outside of our borders, and end up harming all parties.

I am an advocate of vigorous and healthy debates about international trade and foreign policy, but the demagoguery that has crept into Congressional deliberations on US-China relations — during the recent currency bill vote, China’s leadership was derided as a “clique of gangsters” — is unhealthy for our country, for the international system we have championed and led since World War II, and for the people of the United States and China.

The problem with this popular sport of “beggar thy neighbor” to raise funds and ensure votes, is that often the neighbor doesn’t realize it’s a sport. Pundits in the US watch the Congressional votes against China and opine that the legislation is likely going to end up dying in the Senate (like the biannual politically-charged vote on the “Armenian Genocide” resolution). Americans understand what that means, and can agree or disagree as they like. But in other countries like China, where they don’t understand the clear difference between resolutions and bills or binding and nonbinding, and don’t have a similar separation of powers where the administration and Congress could be entirely at odds on any given day, the nuances of our system are quite literally lost in translation. The Chinese walk away thinking Americans view them as gangsters, because that’s what they read in our newspapers.

That is not to say that our policy toward China should be one of passivity or complacence. We need to have more serious and open discussions about these issues, not Congressional hearings that set the “American worker” versus the “Chinese government” and create false dichotomies that tragically simplify important issues. For the same reason that we bemoan the lack of civility between Democrats and Republicans today, we should also be wary of leaving civility at the wayside when dealing with an extraordinarily complex country like China, which claims the world’s second-highest GDP as of 2010, but whose citizens barely crack the top 100 in GDP per capita.

We forget, in our rush to score political points, how much a developing China is a driver of the global economy. Many US states are in fact enjoying booming trade with China, including Louisiana, Ohio, and North Carolina. In total, 47 states have registered triple-digit export growth to China since 2000, and 19 states now export more than $1 billion to China each year. What would a trade war do to them? What would a trade war do to our military ties or our cultural ties? On the flip side, what are the reasons that China does not want to revalue its currency right now? What are their concerns about domestic stability and job creation that lead them to embrace exports? These are the questions that I never saw asked as Congress prioritized grandstanding over responsible policymaking.

I am trying to do my part to foster civil dialogue and debate as the founder of a political institute at the University of Central Florida. I am hosting a day-long symposium in April 2011 that will tackle the key issues in the US-China relationship, to be presented to nearly 1,000 students and to be broadcast over the web to students and policymakers around the world. We won’t whitewash the issues, and we won’t exclude viewpoints. We will invite Chinese and American politicians, academics and businessmen to have a free and unfettered debate. And I believe that we will learn more, at the end of the day, than anyone ever could through an exercise in political demagoguery. Importantly, we will still respect each other when the day is over.

Too many politicians believe that playing off the fears of voters is the best path towards election, not realizing that the entire world is listening to their harsh or irresponsible statements. Politicians are public servants and have a duty to tell voters the truth. The truth of the matter here is that China is a serious competitor to the United States. But there are opportunities for both parties to benefit. Before we vent our anger at China through legislation and insults on the record, we need to have a much more serious, substantial, and public debate to educate Americans and their policymakers about the true, complex, evolving nature of the US-China relationship.

Lou Frey served in Congress as a Republican from the state of Florida from 1969-1979, and is a past president of the US Association of Former Members of Congress. He is founder and president of the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida. He has traveled to China in three different decades.

Source: The Hill, Campaigning against China, by Lou Frey – 10/05/10 10:05 AM ET