By Adam Lashinsky
June 7, 2013

FORTUNE — Jon Huntsman, one of the most vocal U.S. voices against Chinese government-sponsored intellectual-property theft, said Friday there is some cause for optimism on the topic.

If nothing else, Huntsman said, U.S. concern over Chinese behavior has become so pronounced that the issue for the first time is getting top billing among senior policymakers. “In the past it has always gotten second-tier billing,” Huntsman said during a panel on “soft power” diplomacy at the  Fortune Global Forum in Chengdu, China. “This is a good sign” that the issue has reached the front burner, on par with bilateral issues such as currency-exchange rates and military policy.

Former Utah Gov. Huntsman, a Republican presidential candidate in 2012, brings credibility to the issue of cybercrime by the Chinese. A former U.S. ambassador to China and Singapore, he recently co-authored a highly critical report of the Chinese that advocated a need by the U.S. to go on the offensive against China.

MORE: Complete coverage of the Fortune Global Forum

Huntsman is careful to distinguish between normal “government-to-government” poking on the one hand — in other words, the normal stuff of national-security-related espionage — and corporate theft on the other hand.

He said his reason for optimism is linked to the rise of entrepreneurialism in China. A climate of theft “puts a damper on the willingness to take risks,” he said, noting that Chinese entrepreneurs don’t want to be associated with such a culture. “They will be a force for change,” he said, predicting that the politicians on both sides will “grind away at solutions.”

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