PRESIDENT Hu Jintao used a White House news conference yesterday to concede for the first time on such a prominent stage that "a lot still needs to be done in terms of human rights" in China.
n a revealing encounter with Western reporters -- and one that may vindicate US President Obama's decision to flatter him with a full state visit -- Mr Hu said that China recognised and respected "the universality of human rights" and undertook to "promote democracy and the rule of law in our country".
The notoriously guarded Mr Hu appeared at first to dodge a pointed question on human rights. He later answered it at length in the high point of a visit that Mr Obama said would lay the foundations of Chinese-American relations "for decades to come".
The two most powerful men in the world spent most of the day in meetings that were carefully planned to project an image of co-operation despite worsening tensions over China's military build-up in East Asia and manipulation of the yuan.
Mr Obama welcomed his guest to the White House with full military honours and a challenge to deepen the world's most important bilateral relationship.
Mr Hu barely smiled at the welcoming ceremony and gave notice that "China and the US should respect each other's choice of development paths" -- words seen as a warning not to press too hard on human rights.
Four hours later, given an opening when Mr Obama conceded that China faced special challenges as a developing country with a huge population, Mr Hu appeared to bend on the issue most likely to derail the visit. China was "always committed to the protection and promotion of human rights", he insisted, but was "also willing to have a dialogue with other countries".
Tibetan protesters demonstrating outside on Pennsylvania Avenue called Mr Hu a killer and lambasted Mr Obama for failing to meet the Dalai Lama.
Earlier, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, went out of her way to inoculate the Obama Administration against accusations of appeasing China, which many Americans blame for high US unemployment because of its managed exchange rate policy.
Asked by ABC News if China was America's friend of foe, Mrs Clinton declined to give a direct answer.
"One of the reasons why we are having President Hu Jintao come for a state visit is because we think that we'll be able better to answer such a question as we move forward," she said.
China has bought time on US television networks and huge screens in Times Square for a film extolling Sino-American friendship. English-language copies of the 'China Daily' were being handed out to commuters in Washington. The headlines were the stuff of parody -- "Sino-US ties very important, say Chinese," one read -- but the underlying message of mutual dependence is a major theme of US politics.
In terms of protocol, the morning went without a hitch. The Chinese national anthem was even correctly announced: on Mr Hu's last visit to Washington in 2006 President Bush's head of protocol introduced the anthem as that of the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan.(©The Times London)