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China weathers US storm, for now


Chinese President Hu Jintao has emerged from a state visit to the United States unscathed, but experts warn that a rising Beijing still faces an uphill battle easing US concerns.

On a carefully choreographed trip that some had billed as the most important between the countries in years, Hu sought to improve the image of China which has faced heated criticism over trade, military and human rights disputes.

Hu highlighted ê45 billion in contracts for US companies and committed to do more to protect intellectual property rights, part of a message that China can help rather than hurt the fragile US economy.

The four-day visit that ended Friday was accompanied by a promotional blitz. Hu enjoyed a reception befitting a celebrity in Chicago, while China took out advertisements in New York's Times Square and on television showing successful citizens.

Joseph Nye, the Harvard University professor who coined the term "soft power" to describe how nations achieve goals by being attractive to others, said China was making efforts but remained hampered by its own actions.

"These things help, but releasing Liu Xiaobo would do a lot more for their message," Nye told AFP in an email exchange, referring to the jailed Chinese writer and democracy advocate who won the Nobel Peace Prize last month.

Hu, notwithstanding his conciliatory words, did not budge on many core issues. He avoided talk of China's currency value, which US policymakers say is kept artificially low to fuel a flood of cheap exports.

In a much-dissected comment, Hu acknowledged at a news conference with President Barack Obama that China had more to do on human rights. But Chinese media mostly omitted his comments and Hu later warned the United States not to stir "tensions" over Tibet and Taiwan.

Representative Chris Smith, a veteran human rights advocate, said Hu was "absolutely non-committal" and, in talks with lawmakers, denied accounts that China forces abortions as part of its one-child policy.

"This was a week of loss and setback, not a week of advancing," Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, told AFP in an interview.

"The Chinese press is gushing with superlatives about their dictator-in-chief taking Washington by storm. This is very disturbing," he said.

Smith said Obama, himself a Nobel laureate, should have made Liu's freedom a condition for Hu's state dinner.

He also criticized Obama for saying at a joint news conference that China has a "different political system," while Americans believe in the "universality" of certain human rights.

"To the Chinese people, to the American people, to the world, our president came across as an enabler-in-chief -- maybe it's unwittingly, perhaps naive -- for a dictatorship that has steadily deteriorated on every human rights benchmark," Smith said.

The White House said Obama pressed Hu privately to free Liu and lauded the Chinese leader's remarks as a step forward.

Despite the disputes, surveys show that the US public takes a nuanced view of China. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that only 22 percent of Americans saw China as an adversary.

But political sentiment has been hardening in the United States and Asia in response to perceived muscle-flexing by China. Some experts believed Hu was trying to lower the temperature after witnessing a backlash even in circles normally friendly to China.

US businesses enticed by China's growing economy long led the way in seeking better political ties, but the mood has soured over Beijing's rules on foreign companies and curbs on rare-earths minerals used in high-tech products.

"The Chinese really need to dig themselves out of the hole they have created by alienating businesses in the past year so badly," said Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think-tank.

The contracts announced by Hu "can help, but more important will be meeting the promises they have made to level the playing field," she said.

With so many issues on the table between the United States and China, some scholars saw Hu's visit as critical not for accomplishments but for setting a cooperative tone.

Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state and apostle of realism in foreign affairs, said at an event with Hu: "We can call this summit a success not because it has solved every problem, but because it has shown the way by which the problems can and will be solved."