U.S., China Work Through Sticky Issues

China's President Hu Jintao was treated to an official state dinner with President Obama Wednesday night. The pomp of the visit hasn't managed to obscure the difficult relationship between China and the U.S. The two leaders tried to focus on the positive during a news conference Wednesday.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now when the two leaders held that press conference yesterday, there were a few awkward pauses, which seemed to be related to translation issues - but maybe not always.

NPR's China correspondent Rob Gifford was listening. He's going to help us interpret what was said. Hi, Rob.

ROB GIFFORD: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to a little bit of this press conference. The two presidents were trying to accentuate the positive.

President BARACK OBAMA: The positive, constructive, cooperative U.S.-China relationship is good for the United States. We just had a very good meeting with the business leaders from both our countries.

INSKEEP: That's President Obama at the news conference. China's President Hu also spoke in those positive terms, but then added something else.

President HU JINTAO (China): (Through Translator) We discussed some disagreements in economic and trade area, and we will continue to appropriately resolve these according to the principle of mutual respect and consultation on an equal footing.

INSKEEP: That's China's president, speaking through an interpreter there. Rob, what do you hear when you listen to those statements?

GIFFORD: What I hear is two leaders of possibly the most important bilateral relationship in the world trying to get their relationship back onto a good footing. Basically, they had a rather bad year - some people say the worst year in China-U.S. relations for a decade.

There weren't really any breakthroughs yesterday - we weren't really expecting any - but the fact that they're talking to each other, agreeing to disagree on other issues as well as meeting in a very formal but relatively friendly context, I think that's the issue in itself - that the relationship is solid and going forward.

INSKEEP: When Hu Jintao talks about mutual respect and consultation on an equal footing, what I'm tempted to hear there is hey, United States, don't think you're the world leader.

GIFFORD: I think that's very much the case. Probably President Hu was actually having to rein in that confidence a little bit. Some have called it hubris. I think a lot of people saying China has a got a little bit too overconfident about how well it has done through the economic crisis.

INSKEEP: Now, President Obama did speak bluntly about a Chinese policy having to do with their currency. He wants the currency to be revaluated, and he called this part of the problem - to which Hu Jintao said nothing. What do you take from the silence there?

GIFFORD: I think part of that is just the usual Chinese attitude of not wanting to be lectured to in public. But I think it's also that China feels that it is already addressing this issue. They have said over the last few months that they're committed to reforming their exchange rate policies. And many of the experts I speak to here in Asia believe that they are.

INSKEEP: Of course, that currency issue affects the value of Chinese products sold in the U.S. as well as American products sold in China. I want to ask about one other thing, Rob Gifford, because President Obama mentioned human rights; a couple of reporters at this press conference mentioned the human rights situation in China. And here, through an interpreter, is what Hu Jintao had to say in response.

Pres. JINTAO: (Through Translator) China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform. In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development. And a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.

INSKEEP: Such an interesting statement because it begins sounding like he is excusing a poor human rights record, but ends by saying a lot still needs to be done. Does that mean that he wants to do it?

GIFFORD: I think this was very clearly calculated to be playing to the gallery, if you like. He knows that this is an important issue for the United States and indeed, President Obama pressed him very firmly on this issue during their meetings. Bear in mind, though, the Chinese interpretation of what human rights is includes the right to be able to feed yourself and clothe yourself. It's a much broader interpretation, and I don't think in any way that President Hu was committing to any kind of democratic reform.

I think he was speaking much more broadly about things like economic and social rights, which is always the way the Chinese pitch this issue.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Gifford, interpreting the words as well as the silences in the joint press conference of the presidents of the U.S. and China. Rob, thanks very much.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Steve.

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