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

By John Pomfret and Scott Wilson
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.

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.

pomfretj@washpost.com wilsons@washpost.com

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

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