Obama Pushes Hu on Rights but Stresses Ties to China

Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Obama with President Hu Jintao of China on Wednesday at the White House. More Photos »

By HELENE COOPER, SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and MARK LANDLER
Published: January 19, 2011

WASHINGTON — President Obama and President Hu Jintao of China both pledged on Wednesday to nurture what they called their two nations’ growing common interests, but they also acknowledged differences in the areas of trade and human rights as they held their eighth meeting in two years.

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At a news conference encumbered by a lack of simultaneous translation, Mr. Obama pressed, though gently, on some of the longstanding differences, and Mr. Hu spoke mainly in generalities, giving no ground.

Mr. Obama said that when it comes to differences on human rights, “I have been very candid with President Hu.” But he said those differences ought not disrupt the search for better relations or obscure areas of agreement. Pressed to answer the same question, Mr. Hu said he too recognized the disagreements, but would engage in dialogue on its usual terms: that others not interfere in China’s internal affairs.

Mr. Obama repeatedly mentioned the touchy economic issues, saying several times that China’s currency is undervalued and that trade must be conducted on a level playing field; Mr. Hu emphasized that China’s development would benefit all.

On Wednesday morning, President Obama welcomed Mr. Hu to the White House with an elaborate color-guard ceremony that included a colonial fife and drum band and a 21-gun salute.

Mr. Hu’s visit, probably the last by the Chinese leader to the United States before he steps down next year, is giving Mr. Obama the perfect opportunity to strengthen ties between the White House and the American business community after a year in which relations between the two had soured. With the arrival last week of Mr. Obama’s new chief of staff, William Daley, the former Clinton administration Commerce Secretary, the administration has sought to turn Mr. Hu’s visit into an investment opportunity for American companies.

The White House announced shortly after the ceremony that the Chinese government had agreed to buy 200 airplanes from Boeing in a $19 billion deal, the centerpiece of $45 billion worth of American exports to China that are tied to President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington. China has also agreed to scrap a policy that favors Chinese technology firms for big government contracts, a senior administration official said.

The formal White House arrival ceremony — the 21-gun salute is reserved solely for visiting heads of state — was a display of pomp and circumstance that stood in stark contrast with the tough rhetoric the Obama administration is employing in its relationship with China on issues from trade to currency and human rights.

After promoting the virtues of Chinese and American cooperation at the ceremony, the president — the 2009 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — used the ceremony to deliver a gentle reminder to China, which is holding the 2010 winner of the prize, Liu Xiaobo, as a political prisoner.

“We also know this,” the president said: “History shows that 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.”

Mr. Hu, speaking through a translator, used his remarks to call for the United States and China to “adopt a long-term perspective, seek common ground while reserving differences and work together to achieve sustained, sound and steady development of our relations.”

Although Mr. Hu and Mr. Obama met for a private dinner at the White House Tuesday night, Wednesday morning’s ceremony marked the official start for Mr. Hu’s White House visit.

In addition to the press conference and morning ceremonies, the two presidents’ schedule on Wednesday included private meetings, a session with Chinese and American business executives, a formal lunch at the State Department, and a state dinner in Mr. Hu’s honor.

Calling for the two countries to “break out of the old stereotypes that somehow China is simply taking manufacturing jobs and taking advantage of low wages,” Mr. Obama told the meeting with business leaders that it was important for American companies to be allowed into China’s vast marketplace. The relationship between the two powers, he said, must be “much more complex” than one that sees America simply as a market for Chinese products

Though much of the focus during the meetings Wednesday was on economic concerns, White House officials said that Mr. Obama pressed Mr. Hu at both the private dinner and at a larger session on Wednesday on the topic of human rights, including China’s imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo.

On Thursday, the Chinese president will visit Capitol Hill to meet with Congressional leaders, and then travel to Chicago.

The last time Mr. Hu came to Washington, in 2006, when Mr. Bush was president, his arrival ceremony was marred by a protester from the Falun Gong spiritual sect, who had infiltrated the event using press credentials — an embarrassment to the Bush administration.