Codels: Fortifying Congress’s Role on China Policy
Blog post by Scott Kennedy
The visit to China by a Congressional delegation (Codel) led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) breaks a hiatus of almost four-and-a-half years since any member of Congress has visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Codels collapsed during the global Covid-19 pandemic, but last year travel resumed to the region, including to Taiwan. It is clear that other kinds of concerns – related to perceptions of the low substantive value and high costs of going to China – have moved to the fore.
Most observers underappreciate the value of Congressional visits to China while overstating the risks. Hopefully, this recent trip is a breakthrough and is soon followed by more regular Codels, which would reflect Congress’s important role in this critical foreign policy issue.
The Record: A Regular Congressional Destination
Prior to the pandemic and increase in geopolitical tensions, Codels to China were commonplace. There is no single comprehensive source on Codels, so the CSIS Trustee Chair team has assembled information from multiple public sources to create the first database on member Codels to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan between 2010 and 2023. (See the methodology note at the end of this blog post for details on the database’s creation and structure.)
As Figure 1 shows, since 2010 there have been 115 Congressional-member delegations to the PRC (including both Mainland China and Hong Kong) and Taiwan. They have included 404 visits by individual members, including 202 by current members. If we count by unique members (the right side of the table), 277 members of Congress have visited these destinations, including 148 current members. Just over half of the delegations (59) have visited the PRC, with 177 members making 229 visits; that includes 71 members who have made 89 trips to the PRC.
Over the entire period, traveling to China has been both a bipartisan and bicameral activity. Republicans have travelled to both destinations somewhat more frequently than their Democratic counterparts, though the difference is greater for travel to Taiwan (120 visits to 55) than to the PRC (126 to 103). As Figure 2 shows, since 2010 there have been 185 visits to the PRC by members of the House of Representatives, including 70 visits by current members. Similarly, there have been 35 visits by senators over the same period, including 19 current senators.
The other general takeaway from the summary data, as reflected in Figure 3, is that prior to 2020, Congressional travel to the PRC was greater than travel to Taiwan, with a particularly large gap from 2013 to 2016, but since 2021, prior to the recent Schumer-led delegation, members of Congress have exclusively traveled to Taiwan.
One important caveat to note is that these data only include member-based Codels, and do not include figures for Codels that were centered around the staff of members and committees (which are colloquially known as “staffdels”). Although we do not have exact figures, including this data presumably would have raised the overall numbers substantially.
For those interested in more detailed elements of the database, we have created a searchable version, Figure 4, so that observers are able to look up trips by individual member, destination, party, congressional body, and year. As this is a work in progress, we welcome corrections and new information.
Figure 4. The CSIS Codels Database
China Policy Is More Important Than Ever
There are two main reasons why Codels to China should resume on a regular basis. The first is the growing centrality of China in American public policy, both domestic and foreign. Although their approaches to international affairs differ in many dimensions, both the Trump and Biden administrations have made China a central area of focus in American economic and security policies.
Similarly, Congress is paying greater attention to China than ever before (see Figure 5). According to the U.S.-China Business Council, which assembled information on legislation from the Congress.gov database, in the 116th Congress (2019-2020) members of Congress introduced 476 China-related bills. Proposed legislation touched every element of the relationship, from trade and investment to security and human rights, and everything in between. By the end of 2020, Congress had adopted China-related actions into at least 12 pieces of legislation. That sounds like a low percentage of total bills introduced, but this activity was consequential in every element of the relationship.
More recent Congresses have kept pace. Over 450 pieces of China-related legislation were introduced in the 117th Congress (2021-2022). As before, legislation and resolutions touched upon every aspect of the relationship. Even more important than the high number of bills is the centrality of some individual pieces of legislations to the overall trajectory of public policy and governance, at both home and abroad. For example, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and CHIPS & Science Act, although not China-specific, were motivated in large part by the growing strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China. As a result, concerns about China are having a fundamental effect about how the United States thinks about the role of government in the economy and many other issues.
In the current 118th Congress (2023-2024), not only has China remained a central focus of activity legislative activity, with 376 bills introduced in just its first nine months of 2023, but multiple new committees that focus on China have been created. Although the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party in the House of Representatives does not have the authority to introduce legislation on its own, the committee can shape the debate in Congress more broadly through its hearings, investigations and statements, and its members can introduce bills through other committees. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have similarly documented the growing prominence of China as a topic of focus in Congressional social media activity.
This increase in attention to China has occurred just as the level of travel to China has plummeted. Ironically, the two conflicting trends are partly both related to the pandemic, which forced a stoppage in visits but also became an important area of Congressional attention. While this divergence is understandable for a short time, over the long term, greater Congressional attention to China should be accompanied by greater travel and interaction with Chinese officialdom and other parts of Chinese society. There is a wide range of written sources Congress can draw on: Chinese policy documents, speeches, and official data; research by scholars; reports by journalists; American intelligence; and testimony by executive-branch officials. Although all valuable, for what has become perhaps the most important foreign policy issue facing the United States, these sources should be complemented by first-hand observation and interactions.
Relatedly, the end of the pandemic has seen the resumption of travel by others in the policy community and elsewhere. The Biden administration has sent four cabinet secretaries to China and the President is reportedly planning to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in San Francisco in November on the sidelines of APEC. Moreover, U.S. scholars from policy think tanks and universities have resumed traveling to China, as has the business community. If Congress does not itself resume visits on a regular basis or meet with Chinese delegations visiting Washington, it will play a secondary role in bilateral diplomacy and likely would be less effective in shaping America’s discussion about China policy.
The Benefits of Codels
The other primary reason Congress should resume Codels to China is because of the various benefits they yield. I have heard a lot of skepticism about the value of such trips, with the primary concerns being that Chinese officialdom is not open to substantive interaction, providing just talking points and not listening to the American visitors. Despite those understandable concerns, visits to China can still be worthwhile in a dozen underappreciated ways.
The first six are ways Codel participants could learn through these visits:
(1) Clarifications and explanations of Chinese national and local laws, regulations, and policies. It is helpful to directly hear from and discuss with CCP and Chinese government officials the origins, motivations, goals, and implementation of their laws and policies. Doing so in person allows members of Congress to ask detailed follow-up questions and provide their own feedback.
(2) Interact with Chinese officialdom on issues of the moment. This allows members of Congress to exchange views in real time, which could help not only Congress but the executive branch as they shape policies on these issues. Some issues may be China-specific; others, such as the ongoing conflict in Israel, pertain to hotspots elsewhere.
(3) Interact with a wide swath of Chinese party and government officials from central and local agencies who have responsibility for different issues. This affords the opportunity for further inquiries and to look for signs of aligned views across the policy system as well as shades of differing opinions. If one makes multiple visits, one can look for changes of views over time.
(4) Observe the evolution of physical changes in China and interact with various parts of Chinese society. Codels historically have met with Chinese businesses, scholars, students, and NGOs in Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities.
(5) Interact with Americans and others from other countries who are on the ground. Drawing on their long-term presence in the country, they provide additional information and insights about recent developments and changes over time.
(6) Develop points of contact to maintain communication after Codels. Contacts made during trips can become avenues for discussions following trips, which is relevant for China policy in general as well as issues of the moment and for crisis management.
The latter half-dozen benefits involve how Chinese officialdom and segments of the public could gain or learn from Codels in ways that are consistent with American interests:
(1) Chinese directly hear Congressional reactions to Chinese policies and explanations of U.S. policies and Congressional initiatives. Conveying this information and views directly is critical because indirect sources – particularly Chinese state media and other Chinese officials – may intentionally distort the information Chinese already have. Direct, in-person interaction provides an opportunity to counter misinformation, myths, or reasonable ambiguities. It also helps Chinese have a better sense of America’s top priorities, a lesson visible in the recent visit with regard to fentanyl.
(2) Explain how Congressional views on China are primarily based on substantive analysis and genuine opinion. This would help push back against the prevailing view of Chinese that members of Congress adopt positions on China due primarily either to domestic electoral or partisan politics or because they have a kneejerk opposition to an increasingly powerful China. As such, directly conveying their opinions would help humanize members of Congress to their Chinese counterparts.
(3) Visits by multiple members and Codels would help Chinese officials recognize the diversity of opinion across Congress and changes over time. As above, the prevailing view is that all members of Congress share an identical highly negative view toward China, not just the CCP but about the country as a whole. In fact, there is a wide range of opinions in Congress about China in general and on specific issues. Countering this stereotype could make Chinese more open to interacting with Congress.
(4) Better Chinese understanding of Congressional views would highlight how on many issues the U.S. executive branch and Congress are largely united. This would provide greater credibility to American policies, both in the minds of Chinese officialdom as well as American allies and partners around the world, on both global issues (such as human rights and the global economic order) as well as regional hotspots (such as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait).
(5) Clarify under what conditions American policies that involve criticisms, restrictions, or penalties on China could be changed. One reason Chinese officials appear unwilling to compromise on or modify certain policies that hurt American interests is an expectation that constructive changes would not be met with reciprocal adjustments of American policies or views. Codels provide Congress members the opportunity to clearly explain to their Chinese counterparts what steps China would need to take in order for Congress (and possibly the executive branch) to respond positively.
(6) Provide a boost of confidence to those in China who agree with Congressional views or benefit from extensive interaction with the United States. This applies to those categories of officials responsible for certain elements of the relationship as well as scientists, scholars, students, writers, NGOs, lawyers, and private entrepreneurs. The lack of interchange may make some Chinese more isolated at home and reduce their opportunities to engage globally.
One corollary of these dozen potential benefits is that it is important for both “hawks” and “doves” on China to join Codels. Both likely gain the same way from the first group of benefits centered around what they can learn from their trips, but their utility may differ with regard to the message conveyed to their Chinese counterparts. Doves can stress their preference for cooperation but also effectively convey that making progress requires China to take significant steps. Hawks, by contrast, can emphasize the deep sources of tensions that require tough policies by the United States and its allies, but then explain that Chinese concessions and policy adjustments would be met with reciprocal adjustments from the American side.
Although it requires initiative from members of Congress to participate in Codels, the Chinese government has a responsibility to more clearly signal that Codels are welcome.
The first step is to reassure members of Congress traveling to China is safe despite signs that have created reasonable worries. The lengthy detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the detentions of several American citizens, exit bans imposed on some other Americans, the recent investigations into due-diligence and consulting firms, and the revisions to China’s Counter-Espionage Law have collectively led corporate CEOs, officials, scholars, and others to reconsider visiting China. Although travel has begun to resume and Chinese officials have encouraged Codels to resume, private discussions reveal that there is still a great deal of angst among many Americans about visiting the PRC.
Second, Chinese officials also need to reassure Congress that as long as they do not violate Chinese law, Codels will have the right to fully develop their own itineraries, including planning who they meet and where they go within the country. Relatedly, it is also important to reassure Codels that the Chinese with whom they meet will not be subject to surveillance or harassment before, during, or after the trips.
Third, China would be wise to rescind the entry bans currently in place against several members of Congress and other officials, including: Marco Rubio (FL) and others sanctioned in 2020 following U.S. sanctions imposed against China for the political crackdown in Hong Kong; then Chair of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Carolyn Bartholomew, also sanctioned due to the Hong Kong issue; and U.S. Congressman Michael McCaul (TX), sanctioned in April 2023, ostensibly for visiting Taiwan. These bans sew distrust and make it more difficult for those not sanctioned to choose to travel there or for them to believe they will be able to speak their mind and not face retaliation. The Chinese should recognize how much they benefit from opening their doors to everyone on Capitol Hill and that such penalties give greater legitimacy to restrictions Washington imposes on certain categories of travelers from China.
And fourth, Chinese should not only host visiting Americans, they should visit the United States as well. Cabinet ministers (and their staff) under the State Council and deputies to China’s National People’s Congress should themselves resume travel to have meetings in Washington, DC, and visit other parts of the country. These trips would give Chinese officials more direct exposure to American views and facilitate greater dialogue, with benefits accruing to both sides.
Traveling to China is not easy (or inexpensive), and there are obstacles to having frank conversations with officials and ordinary Chinese. Nevertheless, Codels are a valuable complement to other sources of information about the country. With Congressional activity on China at an all-time high, it is more important than ever for members to visit the country. This logic applies equally to the staff of individual members and committees, many of whom have wide portfolios covering many issues and limited bandwidth to stay up on China. Codels offer a chance for a deep dive into all aspects of China with fewer of the typical distractions that impede deeper learning.
Although traveling to China is an important component of Congress’s learning resources, this does not diminish the value of visiting other locales in the region, including Taiwan. In fact, although former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is known for his precedent-setting trip to Taiwan in 1997, what is remembered less well is that he first made a three-day visit to China before visiting the island.
In sum, Codels to China need not be in competition with other destinations; and if planned well, they can bring substantial benefits to both the United States and China. That would be the kind of win-win outcome too often missing from today’s bilateral relationship.
Methodology Note on the CSIS Codels Database: The database covers all member-based Congressional delegations (Codels) to the PRC and Taiwan from January 2010 to September 2023. Data for Codels was primarily obtained through four kinds of public sources: 1) Congressional records, such as House expenditure reports; 2) Members’ websites; 3) The websites of facilitating organizations, such as the U.S.-Asia Institute and National Committee on U.S.-China Relations; and 4) Media reports. In certain instances, our team directly contacted Congressional offices to confirm visits and clarify the composition of delegation members.
In the original database, trips are coded for their specific destination – Mainland China, Hong Kong, both Mainland China and Hong Kong, and Taiwan. For simplicity’s sake, in this blog post, the first three destinations are combined into a single “PRC” category. The database delineates between “visits” and “members” because some members of Congress made multiple visits to the PRC and Taiwan during this period.
In 2023, there was a 10-person delegation of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) led by Rep. Marcia Fudge. We were unable to obtain information on the other 9 members of the delegation; in the database, they are assumed to the House members from the Democratic Party. In addition, calculations were complicated by the movement of some from the House to the Senate during the period under study. Markwayne Mullin, Peter Welch, and Roger Marshall moved from the House to the Senate after they traveled to China. The database counts their visits by their status when their trips occurred.
It is possible this database does not identify all Codels, or that the database is incomplete or has inaccurate information. We apologize in advance for any mistakes, which are the sole responsibility of the author. To obtain additional information or provide feedback on the database, please contact the author directly.
Scott Kennedy is senior adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business & Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He would like to thank research associate Qin (Maya) Mei for her extensive efforts to develop the database of Congressional delegation visits that forms the foundation of this blog post.
Related Trustee Chair Activity
Scott Kennedy and Wang Jisi, Breaking the Ice: The Role of Scholarly Exchange in Stabilizing U.S.-China Relations, CSIS Report, April 7, 2023.
Scott Kennedy and Wang Jisi, “America and China Need to Talk,” Foreign Affairs, April 6, 2023.
Scott Kennedy, “China’s Neighbors Are Navigating Covid-19, Beijing, and Washington,” Foreign Policy, September 13, 2022.
Scott Kennedy, “Congress on China: Then and Now,” CSIS Trustee China Hand Blog, June 21, 2021.
Scott Kennedy, “Thunder Out of Congress,” CSIS Trustee China Hand Blog, September 11, 2020.