A Day of Tense Encounters Between China and Washington


Published: November 20, 2005

BEIJING, Nov. 20 - In a day of polite but tense encounters between Washington and the world's fastest-rising economic and military power, President Hu Jintao of China told President Bush today 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 two leaders as more comfortable with each other today than in any previous encounter, Mr. 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 that President Bush gave to Mr. Hu in September had been resolved by the time Mr. Bush stepped into the Great Hall of the People this morning. By this 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 with evening, Mr. Bush said his talks had amounted to a "good, frank discussion," but he seemed unsatisfied. He chose his words about Mr. Hu carefully and repeated that the relationship with China was "complex," though later he added that it was also "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."

Mr. Bush attended an early-morning service today at a state-sanctioned Protestant church near Tiananmen Square, saying afterward that "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 Mr. Bush were 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Bush was in Beijing, according to people close to Mr. Bao and Mr. Hu who said they could not be publicly identified because of possible retaliation by the Chinese government.

Mr. 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 Congress for voting down a resolution last week calling for an immediate troop withdrawal, though its wording almost assured its rejection. "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 Mr. Bush, then dealing with China's increasingly assertive tone on economic and military issues, and with Mr. 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, Mr. Bush emerged with little progress to report beyond a $4 billion deal for 70 Boeing aircraft for China.

Even that agreement - to purchase the 737-700 and 737-800 jets as part of a larger order that Boeing officials hope will total 150 airplanes - seemed highly preliminary. One person with detailed knowledge of the negotiations said that 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 the White House with a concrete accomplishment during Mr. Bush's visit.

Mr. Bush appeared to be tense during much of the day. When asked about that later by a reporter, he said, "Have you ever heard of jet lag?"

But if he appeared to be lagging in the morning, he seemed to be renewed after going mountain biking this afternoon. But unlike his weekend forays in Washington, he was not alone: he took his Trek bicycle out with the Chinese athletes training for the 2008 Olympics.

"It is clear that I couldn't make the Chinese cycling team," Mr. Bush told reporters tonight, although his hosts did let him take the lead. As he later entered the Great Hall of the People for dinner, he was greeted by Mr. Hu, and laughingly told him that the team "treated me with respect," adding, "They did not run me to the ground."

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

But while administration officials stressed that they felt that 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.

Mr. Hu, who almost never interacts with either the Chinese or the foreign news media, declined what a Bush administration official described as a request to take questions from reporters after their meeting.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, attributed the Chinese leader's silence to Mr. Bush's tight schedule, though the president managed to hold news conferences with the prime minister of Japan and the president of Korea last week.

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 - Mr. Bush made marginal progress. He secured a public statement from Mr. Hu that he would "unswervingly press ahead" to ease a $200 billion annual trade surplus that wildly outstrips anything Mr. Bush's father faced with Japan in the late 1980's.

But Mr. 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 in the Great Hall of the People said it was clear that "no Chinese leader was going to act immediately under the pressure" of a request from a foreign leader.

Mr. Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao detailed steps they were taking to curb the theft of movies, software and similar goods, stressing that they believed those moves were necessary to develop the Chinese economy.

United States officials have expressed frustration that Mr. Hu and his predecessors have made similar commitments before, but that so far progress has been maddeningly slow.

Had Mr. Bush stepped a few hundred yards away from his meetings in the Great Hall of the People and into the shops off Tiananmen Square - a place he avoided being photographed , American officials said, because of the memory of images of protesters being assaulted by security forces there in 1989 - he could have paid a few dollars for DVD's of several current American movies and what appeared to be a working copy of the Microsoft Windows XP operating system.

The Chinese also appeared to completely rebuff the administration efforts to win some human rights concessions during Mr. Bush's trip. None of the journalists, business people and political dissidents that United States has claimed have been unjustly imprisoned or persecuted by Chinese judicial authorities were released.

Chinese officials often make at least modest human rights concessions ahead of a presidential visit. But Mr. 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, Ms. Rice said that "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," she said.

Mr. Bush said that the two men also discussed strategies for handling the potential outbreak of avian flu and the long-running controversy over North Korea's nuclear program and ambitions. Ms. Rice, briefing reporters this afternoon, argued that the Chinese government was not trying to slow down the negotiations in hopes of putting off a confrontation with Pyongyang. President Hu recently went there to meet Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader.

"My impression, strong impression, is that the Chinese government very much wants to see this issue resolved," she said.