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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.

Still, Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said the administration's apparent shift on human rights is significant because officials had so consistently played down its concerns about China, allowing other Western countries, which often look to Washington for their lead, to do the same.

"We all know that Beijing might not move on human rights," she said, "but if Hillary Clinton can stand up in front of the Chinese ambassador and talk about how his government is engaging in forced disappearances, without the bilateral relationship grinding to a halt, then France, Germany and Japan can do so, too."

Richardson was referring to a tough speech by the secretary of state on Friday that accused China's security services of essentially kidnapping dissidents.

Obama also invited Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, to the state dinner Wednesday night, placing a leading advocate for more freedom in China at the heart of the forum on U.S.-China relations.

Trade and trips

Human rights were not the only issue the two leaders discussed. Hu invited Vice President Biden to China this year, setting the scene for a return visit by his counterpart, Xi Jinping. Xi is expected to succeed Hu in 2012.

On the economic front, the news appeared good, as it often does at summits involving the Chinese.

The Obama administration announced that China agreed to $45 billion in trade and investment contracts with U.S. companies - including $19 billion worth of Boeing aircraft - and made a series of other trade-related concessions as part of the visit.

While Obama touted the deal as one that would "support some 235,000 American jobs," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce expressed a bit of disappointment.

"Progress on software legalization, procurement and market access for beef are two areas that fell short of our expectations, and we would like to see additional progress," said Myron Brilliant, the chamber's vice president for international issues.

On the hot-button issue of China's currency, Hu essentially ignored the matter in the news conference, choosing not to engage Obama as the president made the case several times for China to let the value of the yuan rise against the dollar.

"The RMB is undervalued," Obama said twice, using an acronym for the Chinese currency. Speaking bluntly again, he said the artificially low level of the yuan is in part responsible for a loss of American jobs.

China has allowed the value of the yuan to rise about 3.5 percent since the summer. U.S. officials have argued that a rise in its value will make American products more competitive overseas and will aid China as it turns its economy from one that relies on exports into one in which domestic demand is the catalyst for growth.

In addition to serious policy matters, Hu's visit featured a fair amount of glitz. He arrived at the White House to a 21-gun salute and was sent off with a state dinner.

In between, during a toast at the State Department, the Chinese president clinked glasses with former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger and singer Barbra Streisand at the head table. Hu is said to be a big Streisand fan.

Staff writers Howard Schneider, Mary Beth Sheridan and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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