Obama gently prods China on human rights

Offers praise for economic growth Says ties are key for both nations

President Obama walked with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People. President Obama walked with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)
By Andrew Higgins and Anne E. Kornblut
The Washington Post / November 18, 2009

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BEIJING - Describing ties with China as “never more important to our collective future,’’ President Obama yesterday mixed praise for Chinese economic triumphs with gentle prodding on its currency, human rights, and Tibet.

Talks in Beijing with Chinese President Hu Jintao produced pledges of cooperation on climate change, the economy, and even military relations but yielded no breakthroughs on the many global headaches that Washington wants Beijing to help relieve.

A stiff joint appearance by Obama and Hu in the Great Hall of the People overlooking Tiananmen Square crystallized the state of the relationship between the two world powers: increasingly important to both countries, but also curiously bereft of warmth or intimacy.

Hu, speaking first, said that as the world economy “has shown some positive signs of stabilizing and recovering,’’ it is important for both countries to “oppose and reject protectionism in all its forms.’’

Obama called climate change and nuclear proliferation “challenges that neither of our nations can solve by acting alone.’’ He said the two will continue to “build a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship.’’

“I spoke to President Hu about America’s bedrock beliefs that all men and women possess certain fundamental human rights,’’ Obama said. “We do not believe these principles are unique to America, but rather they are universal rights and that they should be available to all peoples, to all ethnic and religious minorities. And our two countries agreed to continue to move this discussion forward in a human rights dialogue that is scheduled for early next year.’’

Later, serenaded by the People’s Liberation Army, Obama attended a state dinner hosted by Hu in his honor last night, the major social event of his eight-day swing through Asia.

The military band played some American tunes, including “We Are the World,’’ “In the Mood’’ and “I Just Called to Say I Love You.’’ Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Ambassador Jon Huntsman and the rest of the delegation dined on Chinese-style steak, stir-fried wild rice, roast grouper, and ice cream.

But the event did not stretch into the wee hours. Obama was back at his hotel by 8:40 p.m. local time.

In their earlier joint appearance, Obama and Hu each read prepared remarks and stood impassively while the other spoke. At the end of what was billed as a news conference, the two presidents left without taking a single question from reporters, hurrying away from a podium decked with Chinese and American flags.

Chinese state-run television carried the joint appearance live, including Obama’s pitch for “universal rights’’ and talks between Beijing and Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The broadcast contrasted with limited Chinese media coverage of Obama’s tightly choreographed town hall-style meeting with Chinese students in Shanghai on Monday.

But the official Chinese news coverage that followed yesterday’s Great Hall of the People event focused on one part of Obama’s message: that the United States accepts Tibet as part of China. “Obama says U.S. recognizes Tibet as part of China,’’ read the headline on China’s state-run New China News Agency, ignoring his repeated call for universal human rights.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration had not expected “that the waters would part and everything would change over our almost 2 1/2-day trip to China.’’

After his talks with Hu, Obama took a quick, 35-minute tour of the Forbidden City, the ancient imperial palace in the heart of Beijing. Throughout his first trip to China, the president has had to juggle several different and sometimes incompatible goals: coaxing China into providing more help on the international scene, nudging it toward greater openness at home, and assuring ordinary Americans that closer ties with Beijing will help them, not hurt them.

A lengthy joint statement released by Obama and Hu yesterday listed areas in which the two countries will work together, from the establishment of a Clean Energy Research Center to intelligence sharing and other steps to help curb terrorism and crime. Hu, who is also head of China’s ruling Communist Party, said China and the United States “share extensive common interests and broad prospects for cooperation on a series of major issues.’’

But there were no dramatic new deals or signs of any progress on vexing issues such as China’s currency, which America and many of China’s other trading partners view as undervalued and thus a big cause of the huge trade deficits that many countries now have with China.

Obama’s leverage against China is limited by the fact that Beijing is now America’s biggest creditor and holds Treasury securities worth nearly $800 billion. But Michael Froman, economic adviser on the National Security Council, said “the $800 billion never came up in conversation.’’

Speaking in the Great Hall of the People, Obama paid tribute to China for its economic successes and for what he said was its “critical’’ role in helping pull the world back from the brink after this year’s financial meltdown. But, added Obama, “a growing economy is joined by growing responsibilities.’’

“The relationship between our two nations goes far beyond any single issue,’’ Obama said. “In this young century, the jobs we do, the prosperity we build, the environment we protect, the security that we seek, all these things are shared. “Given that interconnection, I do not believe that one country’s success must come at the expense of another.’’

Obama said the two sides agreed to seek “more balanced economic growth’’ in the future, in which the United States “saves more, spends less and reduces long-term debt.’’ In exchange, he said, China agreed to increase its domestic demand.