Huntsman a step closer to ambassadorship

Utah governor faced few questions during hearing

Published: Friday, July 24 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

China Ambassador-designate Jon Huntsman, second from right, and Japan Ambassador-designate John Roos, left, accompanied by Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, second from left, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, arrives on Capitol Hill, Thursday, to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Lauren Victoria Burke, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. needed very little of his diplomatic skill to move through one of the most critical stages of his Chinese ambassadorship confirmation.

He faced only a few questions Thursday from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his portion of the 1½-hour confirmation hearing. The questions included one from Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., suggesting China's exclusion of Mormon missionaries represents a double standard by the United States toward human rights.

Overall, the committee appeared supportive of Utah's governor. But a committee vote is not likely until Tuesday, at the earliest. It takes a vote of the full Senate to confirm a presidential nominee, and Huntsman is hoping that will happen before Congress recesses on Aug. 7.

That's likely to occur, said both Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett. If so, Huntsman said he plans to be in China in early or mid-August. He has said he will resign once he is confirmed so Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert can officially take over as governor.

In an abbreviated opening statement, Huntsman said it was a difficult decision for him and his family "to leave a state and a job that we love," and he thanked Utahns for their support and understanding. One of his top priorities in his new post, the governor said, will be repairing the global economy, in part by encouraging new technologies to combat climate change, as well as pushing China on human rights.

Webb, who presided over the hearing, noted that Huntsman had served a mission for the LDS Church in Taiwan, but China does not allow Mormon missionaries. Webb said he has long been concerned that the United States is not consistent with what it expects of China compared to other nations, such as Myanmar.

Huntsman answered without referring to the LDS Church, saying he wanted to "somehow regularize and systematize the way in which we talk about human rights, the way in which we talk about religious freedom," the rule of law, free speech and assembly, and the flow of information in China.

The governor told the committee that human rights "must be a central part of our ongoing discussions" with Chinese leaders, and he hoped to report back to Congress on his progress.

Neither Hatch nor Bennett said they expected Huntsman would be able to open up China to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionary program.

"It is a country that changes very slowly," Hatch told the Deseret News. "I think he will, over time, be able to soften some of their cultural aspect. I hope he can. But that's not going to be his major thrust. His major thrust is going to be to represent this administration."

Bennett, too, said Huntsman won't be in a position to change that or any other policy unless directed to do so by President Barack Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Bennett said the attitude of both Republican and Democratic administrations toward opening up countries to missionaries is "basically, 'Don't poke that hornet's nest unless you absolutely have to.' "

Huntsman was introduced to the committee by three Republican senators: Hatch, Bennett and John McCain of Arizona. But the accolades did not end with members of his own party.

The committee chairman, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., praised Huntsman's public service, including his time as a missionary.

Although traditionally, only the two senators from a nominee's home state appear before the committee, Huntsman invited his longtime friend McCain to appear on his behalf. The governor backed McCain's presidential bid, despite the popularity in Utah of another GOP contender, former 2002 Winter Olympics leader Mitt Romney.

McCain told the committee that Huntsman has "already made his mark as a leader and as a statesman" and said America will be honored by his service in what is probably the most critical country in the world.

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