China`s Hu faces rights questions in Congress

Chinese Prez sought to persuade often hostile US lawmakers that China is an engine of growth and no threat to American power during a state visit aimed at narrowing rifts between the world`s top two economies.

Washington: Chinese President Hu Jintao sought to persuade often hostile US lawmakers on Thursday that China is an engine of growth and no threat to American power during a state visit aimed at narrowing rifts between the world`s top two economies.

Fresh from a stage-managed summit with President Barack Obama on Wednesday, Hu got an earful on day three of his four-day visit from members of Congress over intellectual property, human rights and North Korea.

But it appeared that currency policy -- a chief irritant in US-China ties and an issue that Obama hit hard with Hu -- was not an immediate focus for the lawmakers.

Hu met John Boehner, the new Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, before crossing to the Senate to meet Democratic Majority leader Harry Reid, Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, a Democrat, and Republican heavyweights John McCain and Richard Lugar.
"In our meeting we addressed some of those challenges, including the need for stronger intellectual property protections in China and curtailing the aggressive behavior of North Korea," Boehner said in a statement after the meeting, adding that human rights was a major focus.

"Chinese leaders have a responsibility to do better and the United States has a responsibility to hold them to account."

Analysts have called Hu`s visit to Washington the most significant by a Chinese leader in 30 years given China`s growing military and diplomatic clout.

Underlining China`s importance to the global economy, data on Thursday showed its annual growth quickened in the fourth quarter of last year to 9.8 percent, defying expectations of a slowdown.

"Unfairly tilts the playing field"

Hu`s visit to Congress brought him face-to-face with the fractious circus of US politics, where lawmakers can outflank party leaders to demand tough action against China`s perceived unfair business practices and human rights violations.

Lawmakers from both parties have threatened to punish China with new tariffs and, while no such laws have been passed, they remain a possibility as voter anger simmers over the slow US economic recovery and unemployment riding above 9 percent.

Rick Larsen, the Democratic co-chairman of the bipartisan US-China Working Group in the House, said China must get serious about improving US access to its huge domestic market and allowing its currency, the yuan, to rise.

"This puts US companies at a disadvantage and unfairly tilts the playing field toward domestic Chinese companies," he said in a statement.

State media in China lapped up the pomp of the visit but largely avoided mention of the rare news conference by the two presidents, where Hu was peppered with questions about the yuan and human rights.

Beijing residents said BBC and CNN broadcasts of the summit went blank when questions moved to human rights and anti-Chinese protesters, although access to foreign news channels is limited to upscale hotels and apartment complexes.

Newspapers splashed photos of Hu with Obama across their front pages, with headlines touting a "new chapter in relations" after China agreed to buy $45 billion worth of US goods in deals that seemed aimed at quelling anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States.

Small groups of activists kept up protests near Hu`s Washington hotel on Thursday while a larger number of China supporters gathered nearby to shout counter-slogans.

Hu will continue his courtship of the US business community with a keynote speech at a Washington hotel before traveling to Chicago on Thursday afternoon. More deals are expected to be announced there.

Yuan not to blame

Neither Boehner nor Reid attended Wednesday`s White House dinner for Hu, labeled "a dictator" by the Senate majority leader in a television interview this week. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell skipped the Hu visit entirely.

So far China has resisted demands for faster appreciation of the yuan, a move that could help lower China`s trade surplus with the United States, which Washington puts at $270 billion.

"Many of us never got a chance to raise issues because of the limited time," Democratic Representative Howard Berman said after Thursday`s meeting with Hu.

Berman said it was frustrating that issues such as currency could not be covered, adding that "life is full of frustrations."

In the past week, China`s central bank has repeatedly set the daily mid-point for the yuan at record highs in keeping with a policy of strengthening the currency during important diplomatic events.

But one-year offshore forwards, which imply yuan appreciation against the dollar, were little changed, underscoring investor skepticism that the central bank would allow the yuan to continue rising after Hu`s visit.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said Beijing`s position on the exchange rate "has not substantially changed" while Commerce Minister Chen Deming said China wanted to resolve the trade imbalance through talks and the value of the yuan was not to blame, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Analysts said the US-China business deals looked impressive but some agreements may take years to materialize and others were closer to non-binding memorandums of understanding that still require further negotiations.

Stiff and often unsmiling in public, Hu may not be a natural salesman for winning over Americans struggling with a sluggish economy.

But US analysts gave a qualified thumbs up to a summit that produced the business deals and agreements to expand military contacts and tackle the nuclear proliferation threats posed by North Korea and Iran.

"There`s a lot that is aspirational here, and the devil will be in the details," said Drew Thompson of the Nixon Center in Washington. "But in principle, this has been a good summit, with the right symbolism and therefore it is a good signal that the relationship is on track."

Bureau Report