By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009
BEIJING, Feb. 21 -- China and the United States agreed Saturday to begin high-level consultations on combating the global economic crisis and climate change, with China's poor human rights record relegated as a lesser priority.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held extensive talks with a panoply of Chinese officials, including President Hu Jintao, and toured a new low-emissions power plant using General Electric technology to highlight the Obama administration's determination to form a partnership with China on reducing harmful emissions.
Clinton said Hu and President Obama will announce the exact form of a "strategic dialogue" -- apparently an upgrading of exchanges on economics and politics previously conducted by the Treasury secretary and deputy secretary of state -- when they meet on the sidelines of an economic summit in London in April.
Clinton, who on Sunday will complete a one-week tour of Asia, infuriated human rights organizations when she told reporters Friday that human rights concerns "can't interfere" with pressing China for greater cooperation on the economic front, the environment and the impasse over North Korea's nuclear program. Many advocates were especially upset because Clinton, as first lady, achieved renown in 1995 for making a tough speech in Beijing about China's human rights record.
But Clinton shrugged off the criticism Saturday. "The promotion of human rights is an essential aspect of U.S. global policy," she told reporters at a news conference with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
Clinton said she had raised human rights concerns with Chinese officials but noted that "at least as important in building respect for and making progress on human rights are the efforts" of civic organizations and nongovernmental groups. She plans a meeting with such private advocates Sunday.
Yang seemed delighted by Clinton's response. He said human rights discussions between the United States and China should take place "on the basis of equality and noninterference in each other's internal affairs."
Then, with a smile, Yang added, "though these days it's a bit chilly in Beijing . . . I have confidence that you will see the biggest number of smiling faces here in China."
But the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders reported that Chinese police are monitoring dissidents and confining some to their homes during Clinton's visit. Some had been signatories to Charter 08, a manifesto released two months ago that demands civil rights and political reforms.
U.S. officials have high hopes that they can work closely with China on climate change, which was highlighted by Clinton's visit to the massive Taiyanggong thermal power plant, which heats 1 million houses and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing with half the emissions and one-third the water usage of an equivalent Chinese coal-fired plant.
"In our view, nothing is more important for dealing with this threat than a U.S.-China partnership," Todd Stern, the administration's special envoy for climate change, said after the tour. "There is no way to preserve a safe, livable planet unless China plays a very important role along with the United States. This is not a matter of politics or morality or right or wrong. It is simply the unforgiving math of accumulating emissions."
Clinton said the plant was a model of the type of partnership the administration wants to form with China, which recently passed the United States as the world's biggest emitter of harmful gases.
"We want China to grow. We want the Chinese people to have a very good standard of living," Clinton said she told Chinese officials. "What we hope is that you won't make the same mistakes we made, because I don't think either China or the world can afford that. When we were industrializing and growing, we didn't know any better."
On the economy, Clinton said, "We have every reason to believe that the United States and China will recover and that together we will help to lead the world recovery."
China is the largest holder of U.S. Treasury securities. "I appreciate greatly the Chinese government's continuing confidence in United States Treasurys," Clinton said. "I think that's a well-grounded confidence."
Yang sidestepped a question about whether China was looking for alternative investments for its foreign exchange reserves, saying it looks for safety, good value and liquidity for its investments.
Clinton is a well-known figure in China, having visited when her husband was president, and she seemed to have an instant rapport with the Chinese leadership.
Hu told her he "greatly appreciated" that she chose the Pacific Rim of Asia for her maiden voyage as chief U.S. diplomat. It "shows the new administration attaches great importance to developing relations with Asia and with China," he said.
When State Councilor Dai Bingguo greeted Clinton, he exclaimed, "You look younger and more beautiful than you look on TV." Clinton seemed to blush in reaction, and she raised her left hand to her right shoulder in a gesture of thanks. "Well, we will get along very well," she said.
Correspondent Ariana Eunjung Cha contributed to this report.