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Fact-checking the New York Times: Did Hu really just shift China's position on human rights?

The most interesting moment in an otherwise subdued -- dare I say dull -- press conference by U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao came when a Bloomberg reporter insisted that Hu answer a fellow journalist's question about human rights.

Hu, blaming the translation, claimed he hadn't heard the question (to audible titters among the assembled press corps). He went on to give China's standard answer on human rights, which is basically, "Blah blah we've always respected human rights (yet we're also improving), China faces unique circumstances as a developing country, we favor dialogue, etc."

He also said that "China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights," which caught the ear of New York Times reporter Michael Wines, who sees the remark as "a palpable shift for a government that has staged a two-year crackdown on internal dissent and imprisoned a Nobel laureate."

"Until Wednesday," Wines continues, "recognizing credos like democracy and human rights as 'universal values' had been all but taboo in Chinese political discourse, although China has signed the United Nations convention that enshrines the principle of universal human rights."

Not so, points out Forbes correspondent Gady Epstein, who passes along this Washington Post article from 2009, which discusses China's submission (pdf) to a U.N. review panel:

"China respects the principle of the universality of human rights," the document states. But it adds: "Given differences in political systems, levels of development and historical and cultural backgrounds, it is natural for countries to have different views on the question of human rights."

That's almost exactly what Hu said. I suppose it's different when the president himself says so with all the eyes of the world upon him, but let's not kid ourselves about whether China has made some profound new commitment to human rights and democracy. For all its very real successes in promoting development, the Chinese Communist Party has no intention of relinquishing its stranglehold on political power anytime soon, if ever. Wake me up when they stop throwing political prisoners in jail, beating people in the streets, censoring the press, and generally evincing little regard for the Chinese people's ability to chart their own future.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

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Prestowitz: Chinese goose and American gander

Chinese President Hu Jintao's arrival in Washington yesterday was accompanied by the announcement of the imminent signing of a major joint venture between General Electric and China's state owned Avic to produce sophisticated avionics (airplane electronics) in China for sale to Chinese and other airplane producers.

No doubt intended as a way of pouring oil on the troubled waters of U.S.-China trade relations by demonstrating mutually beneficial cooperation between U.S. and Chinese industry, the announcement instead demonstrated precisely why the waters are troubled.

Let's start with GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt. About a year ago, in the course of a dinner he thought was private, Immelt complained that China is a miserable place in which to do business. It was bent on expropriating GE technology and made selling in China very difficult if not impossible unless a company also produced in and transferred technology to China, he opined. A few months later, Immelt spoke of having an epiphany about the dangers of off-shoring too much GE production. In the GE annual report, he wrote of the need for and his intent to put more investment in the United States and to bring some of GE's foreign production back to America.

But the announced deal will take things in the opposite direction. The investment and production will be in China and the technology (much of it initially paid for by U.S. tax payers and the Defense Department) will be transferred from the United States to China, thereby enabling China's aviation industry to move more quickly toward its goal of overtaking the U.S. and Europe in commercial and military jet production.

So what's going on? GE's Vice Chairman John G. Rice put it bluntly in commenting on the fact that China is expected to buy $400 billion of airplanes over the next twenty years: "We can participate in that or sit on the sidelines. We're not about sitting on the sidelines." Rice added that: "This venture is a strategic move that we made after some thought and consideration with a company we know. This isn't something we were forced into by the Chinese government."

Okay, but why can't GE sell to that big market without a joint venture with a state owned Chinese company? Why can't it just make the avionics in the United States and export them to the Chinese aircraft makers and airlines? After all, China doesn't have this technology right now. So GE is a lower cost and infinitely more sophisticated producer than Avic.

Well, one reason might be that if GE doesn't do this deal, another avionics maker might. But hold it. That has to mean that the Chinese are effectively making access to this big market conditional on producing in and transferring technology to China. So who is Rice trying to kid. Maybe the Chinese government didn't call him up and shout directly over the phone that "Mr. Rice we command you to do a joint venture with Avic and to transfer your technology and production to China." But Rice is not as dumb as he thinks we are. He was afraid that if he didn't produce in China, he wouldn't have a chance at the business.

And Immelt did say that he had cleared all this with the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Defense and State.

But that raises an even more interesting question. Will we be hearing of any joint ventures between U.S. and Chinese companies that will transfer Chinese technology and Chinese based production to the United States? I'm sure your guess was "no." And you're right. But why don't Obama and his Commerce, Defense, and State Departments make it clear to the Chinese that if they want to sell in the U.S. market they need to produce something here and transfer some technology here? China is way ahead of the U.S. in the production of solar panels for example. This is a technology being fostered by the Obama administration. Why not get the Chinese to help us in solar panels just as Immelt and GE (with the apparent approval of the Departments of Commerce, State, and Defense - and the White House) are helping them with avionics?

After all, isn't what's good for the Chinese goose also good for the American gander?