Chinese Leader Gives President a Mixed Message

BEIJING, Nov. 20 - In a day of polite but tense encounters, President Hu Jintao of China told President Bush on Sunday that he was willing to move more quickly to ease economic differences with the United States, but he gave no ground on increasing political freedoms.

Although American officials described the leaders as more comfortable with each other on Sunday than in any previous encounter, Mr. Hu made clear, by his words and his government's actions, that he had no intention of giving in to American pressure. Even during Mr. Bush's visit, there were reports of new moves against dissidents and other activists.

American officials said none of the human rights cases on a list President Bush gave to Mr. Hu at their first meeting this year had been resolved by the time Mr. Bush stepped into the Great Hall of the People on Sunday morning. He had met with the Chinese leader in New York in September, when world leaders gathered for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

By afternoon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meeting with reporters, acknowledged that China appeared to have put dissidents under house arrest or detained them in advance of the trip. She said the issue was being raised "quite vociferously with the Chinese government."

Meeting with reporters in the evening, Mr. Bush said his talks had amounted to a "good, frank discussion," but he seemed unsatisfied. He chose his words about Mr. Hu carefully and repeated that the relationship with China was "complex," though later he added that it is "good, vibrant, strong."

"China is a trading partner, and we expect the trade with China to be fair," he said. "We expect our people to be treated fairly here in this important country."

On economic issues that are of major concern to American businesses - letting market forces set the value of the undervalued Chinese currency and protecting intellectual property from rampant piracy in China - Mr. Bush made marginal progress. He secured a public statement from Mr. Hu that he would "unswervingly press ahead" to ease a $200 billion annual trade surplus that wildly outstrips anything Mr. Bush's father faced with Japan in the late 1980's.

But Mr. Hu set no schedule for further currency moves, which are politically unpopular in China because they would make Chinese goods less competitive abroad. An American participant in the meetings said it was clear that "no Chinese leader was going to act immediately under the pressure" of a request from a foreign leader.

Mr. Bush attended a service early Sunday morning at a state-sanctioned Protestant church near Tiananmen Square, saying afterward, "My hope is that the government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly."

But religious activists in Beijing complained that dozens of Christians who had wanted to worship alongside Mr. Bush had been turned away or detained by Chinese security forces. Christians in Shanghai and several other cities said the police had detained people who belong to underground churches to prevent them from staging demonstrations for greater religious freedom during Mr. Bush's visit.

Dozens of political activists, including Bao Tong, a former senior Communist Party official who has become an outspoken critic of one-party rule, and Hu Jia, who has pressed for greater action to combat AIDS, were forbidden to leave their homes or use their telephones while Mr. Bush was in Beijing, according to people close to Mr. Bao and Mr. Hu who said they could not be identified because of possible retaliation by the Chinese government.

Mr. Bush, as he has through much of his trip to Asia, continued to focus attention on Iraq. Meeting with reporters, he talked at length about the arguments that have consumed Washington in his absence, saying that members of the House or Senate who oppose his approach to Iraq have a right to dissent but also "a responsibility to provide a credible alternative."

"Leaving prematurely will have terrible consequences, for our own security and for the Iraqi people," he said, applauding Congress for voting down last week a resolution supporting immediate withdrawal. "And that's not going to happen so long as I'm president."

If finding a way out of Iraq is an immediate problem for Mr. Bush, dealing with China's increasingly assertive tone on economic and military issues, and with Mr. Hu's quiet resistance to Washington's calls for political liberalization, are challenges that will last far beyond his presidency.

After a day of talks that began with a 90-minute meeting inside the Great Hall of the People, Mr. Bush emerged with little progress to report beyond a $4 billion deal for China to buy 70 Boeing aircraft.

Even that agreement seemed highly preliminary. One person with detailed knowledge of the negotiations said the actual contract, including the price tag for each aircraft, was still being discussed. He declined to be identified because of the commercial sensitivity of the pending contract. That strongly suggested that the deal had been announced ahead of time to provide an upbeat note for the White House during Mr. Bush's visit.

Mr. Bush seemed tense during much of the day. When a reporter asked him about that later, he said, "Have you ever heard of jet lag?"

After ending his brief meeting with reporters, the president turned around and tried to go out a door that was locked. Turning back to reporters, he said, joking: "I was trying to escape. It didn't work."

But if he lagged at times during the day, he seemed renewed after going mountain biking on Sunday afternoon. He had more company than on his usual weekend forays in Washington. He took his Trek bicycle out with the Chinese athletes training for the 2008 Olympics.

"It is clear that I couldn't make the Chinese cycling team," Mr. Bush told reporters tonight, although his hosts did let him take the lead.

American officials had set low expectations for what Mr. Bush might accomplish beyond deepening his relationship with Mr. Hu, a man he had expected would embrace reforms more quickly than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

But while administration officials emphasized that they felt that the two men had begun to develop a personal chemistry that made it easier to grapple with trade, currency and geopolitical problems, none of that comity was on public display.

Mr. Hu, who almost never interacts with either the Chinese or the foreign news media, declined what a Bush administration official described as a request to take questions from reporters after their meeting.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, attributed Mr. Hu's silence to his visitor's tight schedule, though Mr. Bush managed to hold news conferences with the prime minister of Japan and the president of South Korea last week.

On Sunday, Mr. Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao detailed for Mr. Bush steps they were taking to curb the theft of movies, software and similar goods, emphasizing that they believed that those moves were necessary to develop the Chinese economy.

United States officials have expressed frustration that while Mr. Hu and his predecessors have made similar commitments before, progress has been maddeningly slow.

Had Mr. Bush stepped a few hundred yards away from his meetings in the Great Hall of the People and into the shops off Tiananmen Square - a place he avoided being photographed, American officials said, because of the still raw memories of protesters being shot there in 1989 - he could have paid the equivalent of a few dollars for the DVD's of several current American movies and what appeared to be a working copy of the Microsoft Windows XP operating system.

On the status of Taiwan, Mr. Hu would brook no compromise. "We will by no means tolerate Taiwan independence," he told Mr. Bush, at a moment the administration has been wary of China's missile buildup along the coast opposite Taiwan.

The Chinese also appeared to completely rebuff efforts by the administration to win some concessions on human rights issues. None of the journalists, business leaders or political dissidents who the United States has claimed were unjustly imprisoned or persecuted by Chinese authorities were released.

China often makes at least modest concessions on human rights ahead of a presidential visit. But Mr. Hu, who has led a concerted and sustained crackdown on intellectual and news media freedoms since he took power in 2002, has shown little inclination to make the kinds of gestures that his predecessors did.

Asked if the Chinese were trying to send Washington a message, Ms. Rice said: "I don't think this has anything to do with particular Chinese attitudes of this leadership. I expect that this leadership will understand, as the former leadership did, that these are issues of concern to the president, concern to Americans, and that we'll keep pressing on human rights."

Mr. Bush said that he and Mr. Hu had also discussed strategies for handling the potential outbreak of avian flu and the long-running talks on nuclear disarmament for North Korea.

Charles Dharapak/Associated Press
After meeting with reporters in Beijing, Mr. Bush tried to exit through a locked door. Realizing the mistake, he made a mock grimace, and an aide pointed the way. He joked: "I was trying to escape. It didn't work."