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China’s Leader Has Message of Harmony, but Limited Agenda

Ian Johnson|The New York Times
Tuesday, 18 Jan 2011 | 4:30 PM ET
Chinese President Hu Jintao
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Chinese President Hu Jintao

For the Obama administration, the four-day visit by President Hu Jintao of China may offer a platform to try to make progress on issues troubling their countries: currency, the trade imbalance, human rights and China’s military stance. But Mr. Hu arrives with a comparatively low-key message, intoning his favorite idea: harmony.

Over the past few years, that has become a catchword of his administration, used especially often when Mr. Hu is confronted with thorny situations that elude ready solutions, like domestic social unrest or a rising China’s impact on the outside world. In China, the term is sometimes used ironically as a verb to describe Web sites that suddenly disappear, “harmonized away,” and officially as a goal, a “harmonious society.”

That is also the goal for the difficult relations between the world’s two most powerful nations. In comments given before he left, Mr. Hu emphasized the common interests of the United States and China and “solemnly” pledged peace and cooperation.

Invest China - A CNBC Special Report
Invest China - A CNBC Special Report

“China and the United States have major influence in international affairs and shoulder important responsibilities in upholding world peace and promoting common development,” Mr. Hu said in a written answer to questions posed by journalists from the United States.

Some analysts say that this reflects a weakened President Hu. After a year of foreign policy missteps that have allowed the United States to regain influence in Asia, Mr. Hu is also on his way out. Even authoritarian countries have lame ducks, and Mr. Hu is expected to be replaced in less than two years.

“He wants to go out with the country’s most important bilateral relationship intact,” said a Western diplomat based in Beijing who spoke anonymously because of the delicacy of the subject.

But Mr. Hu’s calm also reflects a more confident China. As a Chinese scholar at Indiana University, Scott Kennedy, noted in a recent essay, Mr. Hu’s comments are at odds with his host’s.

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The trade on Hu Jintao's visit, with Andy Busch, BMO Capital Markets.

“His description of China took it as a given that China is a leading global power and a central member of the international system,” Mr. Kennedy wrote of Mr. Hu, “and such standing is not conditional on U.S. approval.”

China has also emphasized the need to allow Mr. Hu to enjoy all the trappings of a formal state visit. Chinese officials are still smarting from a decision by the Bush administration not to call his first visit as president five years ago a state visit. The administration then botched the White House reception for the Chinese leader, confusing China’s national anthem for the one of its arch rival, Taiwan, and allowing a protester to heckle Mr. Hu while he spoke to a crowd on the South Lawn.

Obama administration officials say that this time, as Mr. Hu prepares for a transition to retirement, the logistics or ceremonial aspects of his trip have in some ways eclipsed the policy items on the bilateral agenda.

His trip begins with the expected: a dinner with President Obama on Tuesday night, and on Wednesday a formal arrival ceremony, bilateral meetings and a joint news conference, followed by more socializing and a state dinner at the White House.

But it gets more interesting. On Thursday, he talks again to a lobby group, the usually sympathetic US-China Business Council, which will be looking for Mr. Hu to toss some bones to American companies. Then he goes on to Chicago — a visit to Mr. Obama’s adopted hometown, but also a chance to show China’s rising role in the world.

Mr. Hu will visit a Chinese-owned auto parts plant and apparently also the Confucius Institute in Chicago, one of the cultural centers that China has been establishing around the world — as part of a “soft power” offensive that Beijing has pursued for a few years.

This is the real message of the trip: despite all the huff and puff, China and its sometimes maddeningly opaque system, with its somewhat colorless leaders, is here to stay.

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