The Chinese government has devoted intense energy into getting President Hu Jintao ready for this week's visit to the United States, feeding intelligence, position papers and economic statistics to a leader famous for meticulous preparation.
The careful planning -- "I've never seen such heavy preparation," a Chinese analyst said -- reflects an assessment by the Communist Party that a smooth relationship with the United States must be the top priority of China's foreign policy. As a result, according to Chinese officials and analysts, President Bush on Thursday will be meeting with a man determined not to let friction over trade, intellectual property, human rights and Taiwan dilute his message of cooperation between Beijing and Washington.
"We believe the China-U.S. relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world," said a senior Foreign Ministry official involved in the preparations.
The strategic decision by Hu and his party to pursue good relations with the United States did not arise out of sentiment or shared values. Rather, according to Chinese analysts, it grew from a calculation that China, rising from poverty but still facing monumental challenges at home, cannot afford adversarial relations with the world's only superpower and an indispensable source of foreign investment and technology.
In addition, they said, Hu needs a friendly visit to the United States to bolster his leadership in the party. The sight of Hu being welcomed with pomp and exchanging views with Bush, diplomats said, also will play well to the Chinese public, eager to see the country earn respect in major capitals.
For this reason, they said, Chinese officials argued that Hu's two days in Washington -- which will follow a two-day visit to Seattle that begins Tuesday -- should be qualified as a full-blown state visit. Although that idea was nixed by the White House, the visiting Chinese leader is scheduled to get a 21-gun salute on the White House lawn to televise to his country's 1.3 billion inhabitants.
Little showmanship expected
Despite his desire to play well in Washington, Hu, 63, is unlikely to engage in the same crowd-pleasing showmanship as did his predecessors: Deng Xiaoping put on a 10-gallon hat during his visit to the United States in 1979 and Jiang Zemin burst into song and recited the Gettysburg Address during his trip in 1997. Bush went on a bicycle ride while in China last November.
In Hu's rise through party ranks, he has earned a reputation as a cautious bureaucrat with a formidable memory and great powers of concentration, not as a back-slapping politician or a leader prone to bold strokes. During his first visit to the United States, in 2002 as vice president, Hu amazed the governor of New Jersey and his aides not with antics but by reciting from memory the names and performances of U.S. firms invested in Zhejiang province, which has a sister relationship with New Jersey.
At home, Hu's personal life has been closely protected -- censors forbid publishing anything about him except what the official New China News Agency hands down -- and little is known about how he spends his time. When he was a senior official at the Communist Youth League earlier in his career, his office bookshelves were nearly bare and he seemed always to be writing instructions to lower-ranking cadres, former colleagues said.
Hu has disappointed the many Chinese who expected his ascension to power to result in a liberalized political atmosphere. Instead, controls have tightened over the press and Internet and the U.S.-Chinese human rights dialogue has stiffened over a number of unresolved cases, some of which are likely to arise in Hu's discussions in Washington.
For instance, prosecutors here declared March 17 that they had insufficient evidence to try Zhao Yan, a researcher for the New York Times's Beijing bureau who was jailed 19 months ago on charges of revealing state secrets to foreigners. But Zhao has remained in jail, despite pleas from the Bush administration for his release, while China's party-controlled justice system sorts out what to do.
Similarly, Yang Jianli, a democracy campaigner with a U.S. green card, has remained in prison following his arrest in April 2002 on charges of espionage after illegally entering China. Appeals for his release from colleagues in academia in the United States and from U.S. and U.N. officials have failed. Bush has raised the issue with Hu before, but a bipartisan group of 119 members of Congress appealed to the White House last week to do so again when Hu arrives in Washington.
Chinese officials routinely respond that such cases must be handled according to Chinese law and that the United States and China should continue to discuss the issues without letting them undermine U.S.-China ties. More recently, Chinese officials have taken to adding that they have no lessons to learn from an administration that produced the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and detainment centers in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In the past, however, China has released such high-profile prisoners as Yang and Zhao in advance of visits as a gesture to sweeten the atmosphere.
Iran and its nuclear program have also been written into the trip agenda, with Hu likely to balance his desire to cooperate with Bush against his need to preserve China's friendship and oil contracts with Iran. As it has in nearly every U.S.-Chinese contact, the Taiwan issue also will likely play a big role.
But from the Chinese perspective, the most immediate issue for discussion between Hu and Bush is trade, Chinese officials and other analysts said, mainly because of China's $202 billion trade surplus with the United States and the danger it could produce anti-Chinese tariffs or other protectionist measures.
"For the first time, they have realized that this time the U.S. is very serious about trade problems and could take measures that would really hurt the Chinese economy," said Shi Yinhong, a U.S. relations specialist at People's University in Beijing.
Laying the groundwork, Vice Premier Wu Yi led a team of 200 businessmen and officials in visits to a dozen U.S. cities this week -- announcing $16.2 billion in Chinese purchases of U.S. goods to demonstrate trade with China is a two-way street. In Beijing, Commerce Minister Bo Xilai held a news conference last Tuesday to pledge, once again, that China was cracking down on intellectual property rights violations.
The senior Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said Hu also planned to meet with key members of Congress on trade issues, aware that they form the main threat of anti-Chinese sanctions. "We note some people in these circumstances would like to resort to trade protectionism," the official added. "We do not think this can help the U.S. in its economic position."
Correspondent Philip P. Pan contributed to this report.