Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the U.S. has highlighted the U.S. government’s inability, regardless of the party in power, to influence the domestic social policy of China. In the wake of the U.S. financial crisis, along with continued concern for China’s intentional undervaluing of their currency, economic negotiations took the forefront during President Hu’s visit.

The U.S. and China are both critical to the other’s economic security, with almost $500 billion in trade between the two nations annually. This interconnectedness allows each nation to exert a lot of pressure on the other; China depends on U.S. investment and services, along with technical training to maintain its economic growth. Likewise, U.S. firms and consumers have come to rely on the Chinese market as a source for inexpensive labor, relaxed business practices and cheap exports. For these reasons and many others, both nations are conscious of their dependency and are willing to negotiate more openly on economic issues.

However, this economic interdependence has stymied the U.S.’s ability to negotiate with China on social issues, namely the human rights violations and authoritarian nature of the Chinese state. Even though politicians such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have publicly attacked China and President Hu on human rights abuses, they were given little opportunity to actually articulate their complaints to the President during his visit.

Even though human rights abuses were discussed in a closed door discussion between Hu and U.S. political leaders, and Hu supposedly said that China had room for improvement on human rights, any agreements would be informal and completely nonbinding.

Clearly, the U.S. is not in a position to adequately deal with the issue of Chinese human rights abuses. Politicians from both parties are presented with economic realities and are unable to jeopardize trade and investment relations by pressing human rights issues.

A unilateral push for human rights in China by the U.S. will never properly form in our political and economic situation. If the goal is to reduce human rights abuses in China, U.S. leaders should try to push for the formation of a multilateral group, composed of other Asian powers, to lead the charge for increased freedoms in China.

Since we have so many vested interests in China, it is easy for the Chinese government to threaten economic repercussions if pressure comes from the U.S. alone. However, if pressure comes from a larger group, one in which the U.S. is a member, not a leader, the Chinese government will have greater difficulty dodging demands.

American politicians should turn their focus away from empty criticism of Chinese policy and toward the formation of a multinational body to push for greater openness and change in Chinese policy. The first step in curtailing offenses will be increasing visibility of the Chinese government, both domestically and internationally. U.S. leaders should act as global citizens in helping create change in China, not by acting alone with private discussions, but as a member of a global team pressing for concrete change.