Chinese Leaders Begin U.S. 'Buying Mission'

China is on another U.S. shopping spree that appears to be as much about salesmanship as the country's rapidly growing purchasing power.

Hoping to ease tensions raised by the massive trade imbalance dividing two of the world's economic powers, China has periodically come to the United States on so-called "buying missions" to demonstrate the country's willingness to import more goods and services.

China kicked off its latest campaign Wednesday in San Francisco with a commitment to buy $4.3 billion in U.S. technology.

The event's timing spurred immediate skepticism about the sincerity of China's efforts to narrow a trade gap that has tormented the U.S. for years. In two weeks, government leaders will begin talks in Washington on the United States' $232 billion trade deficit with China and other prickly issues.

"They are not going to change their ways. This is all part of a political smoke screen," said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland and the former chief economist for the U.S. International Trade Commission.

Meanwhile, lawmakers were busily drawing up plans to punish China unless its government loosens its restrictions on its currency, the yuan, whose low value has helped drive up the U.S. trade deficit.

China's previous shopping sprees in the U.S. have had little impact because of perceptions that the country's companies were merely bundling together deals that were going to be made anyway, said Nicholas Lardy, a China expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C.

"You can put me in the skeptical category," Lardy said.

The second-guessing and political backlash didn't seem to affect the upbeat mood at the posh hotel where a broad cross-section of business and government leaders from China and the U.S. celebrated 27 contracts signed Wednesday.

The deals primarily involved computer software, semiconductor and telecommunications companies. The list of U.S. beneficiaries included high-tech bellwethers Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco Systems and Hewlett Packard.

California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi hailed the agreements as an "important step in furthering the deep relationship between this state, this country and China."

To underscore China's resolve to explore more U.S. investments, executives from more than 200 Chinese companies are meeting with their U.S. counterparts in 24 cities scattered across 23 states, said Ma Xiuhong, vice minister of China's Ministry of Commerce.

She met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the state Capitol on Wednesday, and the governor later said California had nearly doubled sales to China. California exports to China totaled nearly $10 billion in 2006, Schwarzenegger said.

"The marketplace is now the whole world, and that offers tremendous growth potential for our companies, but our competition is also worldwide," Schwarzenegger said in a prepared statement.

Already boasting the world's largest population, China has become an increasingly attractive market for makers of high-tech gear as the country's rapid economic growth feeds the demand for more powerful computers and more sophisticated mobile phones.

Much of the criticism over China's trade policies revolves around government restrictions that have helped keep the yuan well below the U.S. dollar. The spread fuels the trade imbalance between the two countries by making China's exports to the United States cheaper while raising the prices of the U.S. exports to China.

The exasperation with China's handling of the yuan surfaced again in Washington on Wednesday, when U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, a Democrat, convened an unusual joint hearing of three House subcommittees to address the currency policies of both China and Japan.

Levin, chairman of the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, said he believes the yuan has been undervalued by as much as 10% to 50% because of the Chinese government's manipulation.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is expected to focus on the yuan during May 23-24 meetings with the Chinese government.

Reps. Tim Ryan, a Democrat, and Duncan Hunter, a Republican, already have introduced legislation that would enable U.S. companies to seek tariffs on Chinese goods in retaliation for its currency policies. Ryan and Hunter sponsored a similar bill in 2005 that made little progress.

Separately, an aide to Sen. Charles Schumer said Wednesday that the Democrat is working with fellow senators Max Baucus, a Democrat, and Republicans Lindsey Graham and Charles Grassley to introduce a China currency bill by early June.