In a rare concession on a highly sensitive issue, Chinese President Hu Jintao used his White House visit Wednesday to acknowledge "a lot still needs to be done" to improve human rights in his nation accused of repressing its people.
President Obama pushed China to adopt fundamental freedoms but assured Hu the United States considers the communist nation a friend and vital economic partner.
Eager to show progress, particularly with the unemployment weighing down his country, Obama said the two nations sealed business deals that would mean $45 billion in U.S. exports and create roughly 235,000 jobs. Among the items the Chinese agreed to purchase were 200 Boeing airplanes.
The package also included moves by China to expand U.S. investment and curtail theft of intellectual property.
The Chinese president was treated lavishly, granted the honor of the third state dinner of Obama's presidency.
He was welcomed in the morning to the sounds of military bands and the smiles of children on the South Lawn; he capped the evening at a black-tie White House gala of jazz musicians and all-American food.
China's human rights record is poor and worsening, with abuses ranging from censorship to illegal detention of dissidents to executions without due process, according to the U.S. government. In a packed news conference -- one designed to underscore the freedom of speech on Obama's home turf -- Hu was pressed to defend his country's treatment of its people. He initially did not answer, saying he never heard the question translated, although the White House said that it was.
When prodded a second time, Hu defended his country's promotion of human rights. But then he added that China is enduring challenges as it develops and "a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights." He said China stood to gain from other countries' input, saying: "We're also willing to learn."
White House officials expressed surprise that Hu made the statement publicly and while overseas. Chinese leaders have typically argued that how the country handles human rights is an internal matter.
Earlier, as Hu's visit was just beginning, Obama was blunt about human rights. "History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are more successful, and the world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld," he said.
In private, Obama specifically inquired about the case of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, a jailed dissident who was prevented from attending the Dec. 10 prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway. Obama, who himself won the prize last year, did not mention Liu in his public comments Wednesday.
On another contentious issue, Obama said the United States continues to believe that China's currency is undervalued, making Chinese imports cheaper in the United States and U.S. goods more expensive in China. He said Hu has been moving toward a market-based system, "but it's not as fast as we want."
The U.S. president said it was time to stop viewing every issue of the China-U.S. relationship through the lens of rivalry. He made the case that as China grows and expands the living standard of its people, that benefit is not just humanitarian, but economic. And by that he meant good for U.S. companies.
"We want to sell you all kinds of stuff," Obama said to his Chinese guests, prompting laughter. "We want to sell you planes. We want to sell you cars. We want to sell you software." He also made clear: "I absolutely believe that China's peaceful rise is good for the world and it's good for America."
Mindful of protocol gaffes five years ago, when Hu visited President George W. Bush, the White House seemed to host the state visit without a hitch -- that is, except for translation problems that made the news conference long and at times confusing.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, welcomed a mix of Hollywood A-listers, big business types and prominent Chinese-Americans to the White House as they threw a "quintessentially American" state dinner for Hu, complete with apple pie and ice cream, and jazz music for the entertainment.
The first lady wore an elegant red Alexander McQueen shoulder-baring gown that swished around her in soft folds and the president sported a tuxedo as they welcomed Hu on a red carpet on the White House portico. An honor guard stood at attention behind them.
Celebrity star power arrived in the form of singer Barbra Streisand, her actor-husband, James Brolin, and action film star Jackie Chan. Big business turned out in force, too, including Microsoft's Steven Ballmer and JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon, among others.
Among the big names: fashion's Vera Wang, Vogue's Anna Wintour, artist Maya Lin, Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to add some gravitas. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter made the cut, too.
On the menu: d'anjou pear salad with farmstead goat cheese, poached Maine lobster, orange glazed carrots and black trumpet mushrooms, dry aged rib eye with buttermilk crisp onions, double-stuffed potatoes and creamed spinach. Dessert was to be old-fashioned apple pie with vanilla ice cream.
High-profile no-shows included three of the top four leaders of Congress: House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who declined Obama's past state dinner invitations; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. Boehner's office dismissed suggestions his absence was a snub.