WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pressed China on Wednesday to improve its human rights record and let its currency float freely, delivering pointed messages on key U.S. priorities even as he rolled out a lavish welcome for Chinese President Hu Jintao in China's first state visit since 1997.
The leaders of the world's two largest economies, meeting at the White House, pledged mutual cooperation on a daunting array of global issues.
They announced $45 billion in deals for U.S. exports to China, including 200 Boeing airplanes. They discussed matters ranging from economic development to containing nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran and keeping the peace in Sudan.
Hu was feted in an elaborate arrival ceremony, a star-studded State Department lunch and a lavish state dinner. Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Yo Yo Ma and Barbra Streisand were among 225 dinner guests.
First lady Michelle Obama's office said the Chinese delegation had asked for a "quintessentially American" night. Jazz artists were to perform. Lobster, steak and apple pie were on the dinner menu.
But big underlying differences between the two powers, especially on currency and human rights concerns, were on display during a four-question joint news conference.
Obama, who has been criticized for hosting Hu while Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo languishes in a Chinese jail, said at the news conference that he'd been "very candid" with the Chinese president on the human rights issue.
Obama said differences on human rights were an "occasional source of tension between our two governments." As the two leaders stood side by side at the nationally televised news conference, he called on China to live up to human rights values that he said were enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, adding that Americans "have some core views as Americans about the universality of certain rights: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly."
Hu rarely addresses the question of China's human rights record in public, but he told a questioner that "a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights."
He also defended China's commitment to protecting and promoting human rights, and spoke of "enormous progress."
"China is a developing country with a huge population . . . in a crucial stage of reform," he said. "We will continue our efforts to improve democracy and the rule of law in our country."
Neither leader spoke directly about Liu publicly, but the New York Times reported that a senior administration official confirmed that Obama brought up Liu's case specifically in private discussions with Hu.
The Chinese, Taiwanese, Tibetan and other human rights protesters gathered across the street were less impressed. They said Hu's remarks were meaningless and urged Obama to exert more pressure.
"It's a situational pleasantry," said Bob Yang, the president of an association promoting Taiwanese independence and democracy. "When he gets back to China, he'll revert back to his old ways, which is not respecting freedom, human rights and democracy."
Obama was even blunter on the issue of China's currency, the yuan or renminbi. "The RMB is undervalued," he said, using shorthand for the currency. "There has been movement, but not as fast as we want."
U.S. officials and business executives say that by keeping its currency exchange rate artificially low, China boosts its exports to the United States and other countries.
Hu's visit, which also includes a meeting with U.S. and Chinese business executives, the formal state dinner and a visit to Chicago, was meant to put Sino-American relations on steadier footing after a year of disputes over trade, security and North Korea.
The visit also gives Obama a rich opportunity to strengthen ties between the White House and the U.S. business community after a year in which relations had soured. With the arrival last week of Obama's new chief of staff, William Daley, the former Clinton administration commerce secretary, the White House has sought to turn Hu's visit into a kind of trade show for U.S. companies.
In a significant concession, China agreed to scrap a policy that favored Chinese technology companies for big government contracts, a senior administration official said. U.S. companies complained that the policy, known as "indigenous innovation," cut them out of one of China's most lucrative markets.
Among the deals announced Wednesday morning was one in which the Chinese government authorized Chinese companies to buy 200 airplanes from Boeing, worth $19 billion. The Obama administration also announced railway and energy contracts for General Electric and a joint venture between Honeywell and Haier, a Chinese appliance maker. All told, administration officials claimed these deals would support 235,000 jobs in 12 states, but the precise status of each deal was unknown.
Obama was asked by a reporter from state-controlled China Central Television if, "Deep in your heart do you really think that you can live comfortably with a constantly growing China?" The question reflected widespread suspicion among Chinese that the United States wants to contain their country, but Obama insisted he could, in fact, live with that.
China's rise is an economic opportunity, he said.
"We want to sell you all kinds of stuff," Obama said. "We want to sell you planes, we want to sell you cars, we want to sell you software."
Later, Vice President Joe Biden said he had accepted an invitation to visit China and meet Chinese Vice President Xi Jingping, who's expected to succeed Hu as president late next year.
As Obama formally welcomed Hu at an elaborate arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House earlier Wednesday, Hu said he had come to the United States to "increase mutual trust" between the two nations.
"We have an enormous stake in each other's success," Obama said of U.S. relations with the world's most populous nation and second-largest economy.
It was the eighth meeting between Obama and Hu. And the visit has also had glitches — both private and public. The New York Times reported that several administration officials characterized the tone of the private meetings as stilted and formal, and said Hu often read from prepared texts. Protesters dogged Hu around Washington, appearing at the White House, the State Department and outside the Chinese Embassy, demanding an end to what they said was persecution of religious minorities and Tibet.
Albert Keidel, a top Treasury Department expert on China from 2001 to 2004, said the visit had gone well from Hu's standpoint.
"He's basically on script to have this be a picture perfect state visit. One of the things you have to demonstrate is your ability to work with the United States as well as your ability to stand up to them," said Keidel, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
In China, state media coverage of Hu's visit has made it clear that his presence at the White House, and the considerable attention it has drawn across the world, is seen by Beijing as yet more proof of China's rising clout. Or, as the Global Times put it on Wednesday, "World watches as giants meet."
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.