While US president George Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao hoped their discussions inside the White House would cool tensions over a yawning US-China trade gap, demonstrators massed outside today to protest Beijing’s human rights policies.
The talks between Bush and Hu, who was visiting Washington for the first time as China’s leader, were expected to produce little in the way of substance on the trade dispute and no breakthroughs on the major irritant: China’s tightly-controlled currency.
After two days spent wooing American business leaders in Washington state, Hu arrived last night in Washington for the half-day summit for what were expected to be frank discussions about the US' $202bn (€163.9bn) trade deficit with China, the biggest ever recorded with a single country.
That imbalance has spurred calls in Congress to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese products unless China halts trade practices that critics contend are unfair and have contributed to the loss of nearly three million US manufacturing jobs since 2001.
The visit attracted high-profile attention both inside and outside the White House gates. The spiritual movement Falun Gong, condemned by the Chinese government as an evil cult, gathered hundreds of demonstrators on street corners near the White House in the early morning.
Marchers banged gongs, chanted and waved American and Chinese flags. Banners denounced Hu as a “Chinese dictator” responsible for genocide and other “crimes in Chinese labour camps and prisons”.
The Chinese government had its say as well. In a median in front of the Chinese embassy, the Falun Gong protesters that are nearly always there had been replaced by Chinese supporters holding huge red-and-yellow banners offering to ”warmly welcome” Hu on his American visit.
There were some obvious signs that the summit was not considered on the US side as a “state visit”.
Though the Chinese flag flew over Blair House, the official guest quarters for visiting dignitaries across the street from the White House, lamp posts surrounding the compound were bare of the usual pairings of flags from the US and its guest country.
In addition to trade, Bush was to raise a number of other issues with Hu, including a bid for China’s help in dealing with current nuclear stand-offs with North Korea and Iran, complaints about China’s human rights record and questions over China’s growing military strength and whether it poses a threat to Taiwan.
The two sides have even disputed what to call the visit, with the Chinese insisting that it is a “state visit”, which was the designation former President Jiang Zemin received in 1997, or an “official visit”, the designation the Bush administration is using for Hu’s trip.
While Hu was not receiving a black-tie state dinner, he was being greeted by a 21-gun salute on the South Lawn of the White House and a formal lunch for China’s first family, with music supplied by a Nashville bluegrass band.
For his part, Hu has carried on a tradition started by Deng Xiaoping on his first visit to the US in 1979 of courting American business executives in recognition of the fact that the US is China’s biggest overseas market.
Hu had dinner at the home of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates on Tuesday and yeserday he received a warm welcome from employees at Boeing’s massive Everett facilities.
Last week, a contingent of more than 200 Chinese trade officials and business executives toured the US, signing sales contracts in American goods, including 80 Boeing jetliners, all in an effort to show that China is trying to bring down the massive trade gap between the two nations.
White House officials said in advance of today’s meetings that they did not expect any major announcements on currency or other trade issues, noting that China did make several commitments last week, such as requiring that all personal computers sold in China be loaded with legal software and agreeing to drop a ban on imports of US beef.
Some small progress may be made in the area of energy, where China’s rapidly growing economy has increased global demand for crude oil, pushing prices higher, and sent China rushing to lock up sources of supply in such areas as Sudan, Burma and Iran.
But without movement on the currency problem, congressional critics are likely to be unimpressed with the results of the meeting.