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Bush-Hu meetings polite but tense

China leader is willing to move on economic reform

President Bush jokingly makes a face as he tries to open a locked door while leaving a press conference in Beijing Sunday. He made better progress on economic issues.
President Bush jokingly makes a face as he tries to open a locked door while leaving a press conference in Beijing Sunday. He made better progress on economic issues.
Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

BEIJING — In a day of polite but tense encounters, President Hu Jintao of China told President Bush on Sunday that he was willing to move more quickly to ease economic differences with the United States, but he gave no ground on increasing political freedoms.

Although American officials described the leaders as more comfortable with each other on Sunday than in any previous encounter, Hu made clear, by his words and his government's actions, that he had no intention of giving in to American pressure.

American officials said none of the human rights cases on a list President Bush gave to Hu in September had been resolved by the time Bush stepped into the Great Hall of the People on Sunday morning.

By afternoon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meeting with reporters, acknowledged that China appeared to have put dissidents under house arrest or detained them in advance of the trip. She said the issue was being raised "quite vociferously with the Chinese government."

Meeting with reporters in the evening, Bush said his talks had amounted to a "good, frank discussion," but he seemed unsatisfied. He chose his words about Hu carefully and repeated that the relationship with China was "complex," though later he added that it is "good, vibrant, strong."

"China is a trading partner, and we expect the trade with China to be fair," he said. "We expect our people to be treated fairly here in this important country."

On economic issues that are of major concern to American businesses — letting market forces set the value of the undervalued Chinese currency and protecting intellectual property from rampant piracy in China — Bush made marginal progress. He secured a public statement from Hu that he would "unswervingly press ahead" to ease a $200 billion annual trade surplus that wildly outstrips anything Bush's father faced with Japan in the late 1980s.

But Hu set no schedule for further currency moves, which are politically unpopular in China because they would make Chinese goods less competitive abroad. An American participant in the meetings said it was clear that "no Chinese leader was going to act immediately under the pressure" of a request from a foreign leader.

Bush attended a service early Sunday morning at a state-sanctioned Protestant church near Tiananmen Square, saying afterward, "My hope is that the government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly."

But religious activists in Beijing complained that dozens of Christians who had wanted to worship alongside Bush had been turned away or detained by Chinese security forces. Christians in Shanghai and several other cities said the police had detained people who belong to underground churches to prevent them from staging demonstrations for greater religious freedom during Bush's visit.

Dozens of political activists, including Bao Tong, a former senior Communist Party official who has become an outspoken critic of one-party rule, and Hu Jia, who has pressed for greater action to combat AIDS, were forbidden to leave their homes or use their telephones while Bush was in Beijing, according to people close to Bao and Hu who said they could not be identified because of possible retaliation by the Chinese government.

Bush, as he has through much of his trip to Asia, continued to focus attention on Iraq. Meeting with reporters, he talked at length about the arguments that have consumed Washington in his absence, saying that members of the House or Senate who oppose his approach to Iraq have a right to dissent but also "a responsibility to provide a credible alternative."

"Leaving prematurely will have terrible consequences, for our own security and for the Iraqi people," he said, applauding the Congress for last week voting down a resolution supporting immediate withdrawal. "And that's not going to happen so long as I'm president."

If finding a way out of Iraq is an immediate problem for Bush, dealing with China's increasingly assertive tone on economic and military issues, and with Hu's quiet resistance to Washington's calls for political liberalization, is a challenge that will last far beyond his presidency.

After a day of talks that began with a 90-minute meeting inside the Great Hall of the People, Bush emerged with little progress to report beyond a $4 billion deal for China to buy 70 Boeing aircraft.

Even that agreement seemed highly preliminary. One person with detailed knowledge of the negotiations said the actual contract, including the price tag for each aircraft, was still being discussed. He declined to be identified because of the commercial sensitivity of the pending contract. That strongly suggested that the deal had been announced ahead of time to provide an upbeat note for the White House during Bush's visit.

American officials had set low expectations for what Bush might accomplish beyond deepening his relationship with Hu, a man he had expected would embrace reforms more quickly than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

But while administration officials emphasized that they felt the two men had begun to develop a personal chemistry that made it easier to grapple with trade, currency and geopolitical problems, none of that comity was on public display.

Bush later flew to Mongolia and thanked the nation for standing with him in Iraq and compared the struggle against Islamic radicalism to the country's battle against communism.

On the status of Taiwan, Hu would brook no compromise. "We will by no means tolerate Taiwan independence," he told Bush, at a moment the administration has been wary of China's missile buildup along the coast opposite Taiwan.

The Chinese also appeared to completely rebuff efforts by the administration to win some concessions on human rights issues. None of the journalists, businessmen or political dissidents who the United States has claimed were unjustly imprisoned or persecuted by Chinese authorities were released.

China often makes at least modest concessions on human rights ahead of a presidential visit. But Hu, who has led a concerted and sustained crackdown on intellectual and media freedoms since he took power in 2002, has shown little inclination to make the kinds of gestures that his predecessors did.

"The Chinese leadership now argues that all such cases must be handled according to law," said Fan Yafeng, an outspoken scholar who has pressed for broader political and legal freedoms. "They pretend that the law operates independently of the party, which it does not."

Asked if the Chinese were trying to send Washington a message, Rice said: "I don't think this has anything to do with particular Chinese attitudes of this leadership. I expect that this leadership will understand, as the former leadership did, that these are issues of concern to the president, concern to Americans, and that we'll keep pressing on human rights."

Bush said that he and Hu had also discussed strategies for handling the potential outbreak of avian flu and the long-running talks on nuclear disarmament for North Korea.

Rice, meeting with reporters on Sunday afternoon, said the Chinese government was not trying to slow down the negotiations on North Korea in the hope of putting off a confrontation with the North. Hu visited North Korea three weeks ago to meet that country's leader, Kim Jong Il. "My impression, strong impression, is that the Chinese government very much wants to see this issue resolved," she said.