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WHITE HOUSE

Hu and Obama Tout Progress

But differences on human rights and currency manipulation are apparent.

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President Obama speaks in a joint press conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao in the East Room of the White House today. Obama and Hu met in the Oval Office earlier in the day and will attend a state dinner this evening.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Updated at 3:26 p.m. on January 19.

Declaring that "China's peaceful rise is good for the world and good for America," President Obama joined Chinese President Hu Jintao this afternoon for a joint press conference in the White House's East Room that touched on a wide variety of issues, including trade, currency, security, and human rights.

 

Obama went out of his way to celebrate China's emergence as a global superpower and to hail the country's progress in reducing poverty among its more than 1.3 billion citizens.

"I believe the same thing that seven previous presidents believe," Obama told the crowd of journalists and dignitaries, noting that his predecessors believed the two nations could cooperate despite having substantial differences.

By linking himself to a long line of presidents, Obama demonstrated that the power of his personality and multi-ethnic ancestry, touted so often in 2008 as signaling a new way of looking at the world, was not enough to overcome the perils and opportunities of his predecessors who have dealt with Beijing.

 

One of those differences between the two nations, of course, is human rights. In a rare admission of the criticism leveled at China over everything from freedom of religion to freedom of assembly, Hu said that "a lot still needs to be done" on human rights.

At the same time, the Chinese leader said that the issue should be addressed in the context of "noninterference," which is widely seen as diplomatic code for telling the U.S. to stay out of what China sees as a domestic matter. Still, his mere acknowledgement that China's human rights record is not pristine struck many as the most startling moment of the press conference, if not the summit.

For his part, Obama praised recent steps from Beijing to raise the value of its currency, the yuan. But Obama noted that its value is far too low and said Washington would continue to monitor progress. He also argued that a stronger yuan would help Chinese consumers.

He touted China's promise to buy $45 billion in American goods and proudly noted that Beijing is promising not to discriminate against American companies in its government procurement, though the many American businesses who have been befuddled by China's byzantine public sector are not likely to breathe easier anytime soon.

 

At times, the press conference took on a slightly comic air as translations droned on and one Chinese reporter even admonished the translators to convey his question accurately.

For his part, when Hu was asked why neither Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or House Speaker John Boehner would be attending tonight's state dinner, he said that Obama would know more about that and tossed the question to the president, who laughed along with the rest of the crowd.

The two vowed cooperation in a number of other areas, including more citizen exchanges, battling climate change, and making progress on clean energy, as well as taming the nuclear ambitions of North Korea.

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Obama wished Hu well on his visit to Chicago, which will come after tonight's dinner. The Chicagoan said Hu was "brave to visit in winter," a line which was greeted by laughter in the room and, after a moment for translation, a brief smile from Hu himself.

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