LAS VEGAS -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid branded Chinese President Hu Jintao a "dictator" on a local TV talk show on Tuesday night, a remark likely to make the start of Hu's first state visit to Washington, D.C., awkward for President Obama at a moment when the U.S. is trying to ease tensions with the Asian power.
Reid, Obama's top legislative ally and Congress' most powerful Democrat, was responding to a question from "Face To Face"
host Jon Ralston about the December compromise that extended the Bush-era tax cuts. The recently reelected Nevada senator veered off on a tangent intended to compare the American and Chinese systems of government to give a roundabout defense of the importance of legislative compromise.
"Jon, I am going to go back to Washington tomorrow and meet with the president of China. He is a dictator," Reid said with a grin. "He can do a lot of things through the form of government they have."
The senator quickly seemed to realize what he had said and continued, "Maybe I shouldn't have said dictator. But they have a different type of government than we have, and that is an understatement."
The Chinese government has historically been extremely sensitive to such remarks. In the state-run media, Beijing routinely denounces American leaders and commentators who claim the United States is freer and treats its citizens more honorably. Once a year it publishes a document in the English-language China Daily
outlining every human rights abuse allegedly committed by the U.S. dating as far back as the Civil War.
Hu arrived Tuesday and is expected to be feted at a lavish state dinner at the White House on Wednesday night, the first for a Chinese leader in 13 years. Reid is expected to attend.
The Obama administration has said it hopes to focus this week's talks on tensions over the Chinese currency exchange rate and North Korea, among other issues.
The Treasury Department reported in November that China holds $895 billion in U.S. government securities, or 6.4 percent of the national debt.
Reid is not the only U.S. lawmakers to publicly criticize the Chinese as the visit begins. Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine is trying to collect signatures for a letter to Obama urging him to address human rights issues with Hu. Yet Reid, as Senate leader and the shepherd of Obama's legislative agenda, is different.
Ironically, Reid also represents some of America's top apologists for the Chinese regime, the heads of the nation's biggest gambling conglomerates. MGM Resorts, Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands have all built major resorts in the Chinese special administrative region of Macau, where gambling is legal. Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson and Wynn CEO Steve Wynn both have publicly referred to Beijing as a benevolent government whose people are happy, free and prosperous.
Both Wynn Resorts and LVS have survived the brutal economic downturn in Las Vegas thanks to huge profits in their Chinese enterprises.
Several human rights groups have documented abuses in China against minorities including Tibetans, Muslims and Uighurs as well as prohibitions against certain religions and any organizations openly critical of the regime. Most recently, Beijing refused to free imprisoned civil rights activist Liu Xiaobo, who won last year's Nobel Peace Prize.