Obama hosts Hu Jintao on state visit, presses China on human rights

President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao sparred over human rights on Wednesday, while balancing concerns against $45 billion in expected new export sales for the U.S. with recent business deals.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 12:00 AM

President Obama used his summit Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao to place the issue of human rights front and center in the U.S. relationship with the world's preeminent ascending power. And Hu, in a rare concession, acknowledged that China needs to make more progress.

On a day that combined billion-dollar deals with talks on nuclear proliferation and trade imbalances, Obama's calls for a freer China constituted a significant shift from his previous statements playing down U.S. concerns.

In a series of public remarks made in Hu's presence, Obama urged his counterpart to allow more freedom and to open a real dialogue with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, arguing that only countries that respect the rights of all their citizens can be truly stable. In a private meeting with Hu, officials said, Obama raised the case of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist currently imprisoned in China.

"Societies are more harmonious, nations are more successful, and the world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being," Obama said at a welcome ceremony on the White House lawn.

At a news conference later, Hu initially did not answer a reporter's question about human rights. But prodded again, he broke with past statements made by Chinese leaders traveling outside China, admitting that his nation has work to do when it comes to building a freer society.

"China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform," he told reporters. "In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development. And a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights."

A new direction

Obama's shift on human rights reflects a realization among administration officials that a rising China that remains a one-party state could ultimately be more unstable and more unpredictable than a nation moving ahead with democratic reforms.

It was only two years ago that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said advocacy for human rights in China should not interfere with progress in negotiations over climate change and the global financial crisis. But officials, disappointed by developments in U.S.-China relations, now believe it is worth the risk to press Beijing to liberalize its political system.

White House officials were heartened by Hu's willingness to show some flexibility on Wednesday. They also noted that Beijing, for the first time, joined the United States in expressing concern about North Korea's recently revealed program to enrich uranium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. The Chinese agreed to language on that matter as part of a joint statement issued by both governments.

Obama leavened his tougher line on human rights by stating several times that the United States does not fear a stronger China and that Washington has no interest in blocking Beijing's emergence as a superpower - a widespread belief of many Chinese.

"We welcome China's rise," Obama said. "We just want to make sure that . . . rise occurs in a way that reinforces international norms and international rules, and enhances security and peace, as opposed to it being a source of conflict."

Other U.S. officials were less sanguine. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called Hu a "dictator" before backtracking, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, compared him to an ancient Chinese emperor.

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