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A U.S. congressional delegation visits China — the first since 2019

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Middle East conflict is commanding most of our attention this morning. But we are following other news around the world, including this. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and five other senators are in China. It's the first trip to China by a congressional delegation since before the pandemic, which is a very long time for that kind of a pause. NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch has been with the delegation all day, and he's on the line. Hi there, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what are they doing?

RUWITCH: Well, they are meeting people. This is a bipartisan delegation. So there's three Democrats, three Republicans. The co-head of the delegation is Mike Crapo from Idaho. And, you know, you're right. It's been since before COVID that they've been doing these meetings. China had very strict rules in place and only recently lifted them a few months back. International travel is still not back to normal. Today, they've been in Beijing meeting various officials. They met the foreign minister, the head of parliament. Right now they're starting a meeting with the commerce minister. And we're right down the street from the Great Hall of the People, where they had a meeting with Xi Jinping, which in itself is noteworthy, right? It's a gesture toward trying to improve ties. You know, normally heads of state meet other heads of state.

At the meeting, Xi welcomed the senators. He said there was no substitute for face-to-face interactions. He did note that there's been, in his words, wind and rain at times over the years in U.S.-China relations. But listen to him here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: He's saying the historical logic of peaceful coexistence hasn't changed. The hopes of the people of the two countries for interaction hasn't changed. The expectation from the international community for peaceful development between China and the U.S. hasn't changed. And there's no reason to make the relationship worse, only a thousand reasons to make it better.

INSKEEP: Just fascinating to hear the kind of staples of Chinese rhetoric there, the language of peaceful coexistence, the metaphor of the weather and so forth. But...

RUWITCH: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Let's look at this from the U.S. point of view. What do the senators hope to accomplish by being there?

RUWITCH: Yeah. Schumer was really clear in his messaging in all the meetings. Competition, he says, between China and the U.S. is to be expected, and the U.S. doesn't want decoupling. But he did bring a tough message. Here he is speaking with Xi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: But China must also provide a level playing field for American companies and workers. Most Americans, including our delegation, do not believe we have that fairness now.

RUWITCH: He listed a series of other issues as well that he says are of great concern, for instance, holding Chinese-based companies accountable for fueling the fentanyl crisis, ensuring that China doesn't support Russia's war against Ukraine, protecting human rights. And one other thing he brought up - he said he was disappointed in the Chinese foreign ministry's response to the Hamas attack on Israel. It didn't have any sympathy for the Israeli people in it. And he urged China to stand with the Israelis and condemn the attacks.

INSKEEP: John, listening to you, that seems also kind of classic examples of U.S. positions, U.S. policy views and U.S. rhetoric. So we've heard from both sides, and they're saying this to each other, but where is this all going?

RUWITCH: Yeah. We don't know. It's - both sides, you know, indicate they think that more contact, more interaction is good. I understand in the coming weeks, there will be some Chinese cabinet ministers who may make visits to the U.S. Both sides are trying to pave the way for Xi Jinping to go to San Francisco next month for an Asia-Pacific summit. There's still lots of antagonism. There's still lots of mistrust. But, you know, the resumption of congressional delegations visiting China is a return to something a bit more normal for China-U.S. ties.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Ruwitch is in Beijing. John, thanks, as always, for your insights. It's good to hear from you.

RUWITCH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.