I’m trying to muster some partisan outrageous outrage over his impolitic language, but … he’s right, isn’t he? At the very least, he’s closer to the target than the diplospeak being used by Obama and the State Department to welcome Hu for his state visit. In fact, the only reason this qualifies as “news” is because Reid, in his own inimitable way, inadvertently captured the angst many Americans feel at China’s leverage over us. They own a ton of our debt and make a ton of our goods and so we’re obliged to watch what we say about them, no matter how true it might be or what noble end it might serve. Thus does it become a minor international faux pas for the U.S. Senate majority leader to aptly label an authoritarian an authoritarian. Sorry, Hu!

My only issue with what he says is whether it’s accurate on its own terms. Hu isn’t a “dictator” the way Kim Jong-il is, a point Reid himself nods at in correcting his statement; it’s the regime’s totalitarian apparatus that’s all-powerful, not the leader of it. If Mao was Stalin, Hu’s more of a Khrushchev or Brezhnev. But that’s a quibble. The more important question is, precisely how much control does that apparatus still retain over China’s military? I didn’t blog it last week but here’s an ominous detail from the LA Times’s report on Gates’s visit to Beijing:

China’s military conducted the first flight test of an experimental stealth fighter Tuesday, apparently without informing the country’s civilian leadership in advance and only hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with the Chinese president to discuss ways of improving military ties…

When Gates mentioned the test in an afternoon meeting with President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People, it was clear that neither Hu nor the other Chinese civilian officials present were aware it had occurred, a senior U.S. Defense Department official said.

After confirming the test flight, Hu told Gates that it was not timed to coincide with his visit.

“He said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a preplanned test,” Gates told reporters, “and that’s where we left it.”

I’m sure Obama isn’t notified in advance of every weapons test that the U.S. military conducts, but China’s stealth fighter isn’t just any weapon. It’s a potential gamechanger in Asia and a direct threat to U.S. air superiority and doubtless is well known as such to Hu and Gates. It’s unthinkable that that test wasn’t deliberately timed to coincide with Gates’s visit, which in turn means either (a) U.S. officials were flatly lying about Hu’s innocence in order to downplay the incident before his visit or (b) China’s military is now internally powerful enough to conduct a major weapons test with foreign policy implications without regard for whether it might embarrass the civilian leadership. Frankly, the first explanation — the “dictator” theory — is the less ominous of the two.

Exit question: That upcoming meeting between Reid and Hu might get a little awkward, huh?