US lauds Hu comment on human rights

WASHINGTON, January 20, 2011 (AFP) - The White House Thursday billed President Hu Jintao's comment that China needed to do more on human rights as unprecedented, and warned the world would watch to test Beijing's compliance.

"You would all have to strain your recent memory to find a leader from China traveling outside of his country... making such a frank admission of the improvement that needed to happen," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Hu's comment during a press conference alongside President Barack Obama on Wednesday attracted intense interest, and was played up in some reports as a significant shift in rhetoric on China's human rights policy.

However, Hu's true intentions remained unclear, and he several times stated that China did not share western conceptions of human rights, saying "national" characteristics and different circumstances needed to be recognized.

His emphasis on the social challenges and development needs of China appeared to follow traditional government formulations on human rights and indicate that Beijing is not about to change its policies on political dissent.

But the White House chose to interpret the remarks as evidence of steady progress on a number of issues including economics and security, that Obama aides said emerged from Wednesday's summit.

"The news was just that, that President Hu realizes -- and told the world -- that China has to do better," Gibbs said.

"The world heard the leader of China make that important admission, and the world will watch to see the steps that they take over the course of the next many months... to make the improvements that he says need to be made."

Obama twice stated in public on Wednesday in front of Hu that the United States would not shirk from raising its "core" beliefs of the importance of universal human rights, despite seeking to improve ties with China.

Officials said that Obama also raised the plight privately of his successor as Nobel peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who is languishing in a Chinese prison after calling for political reforms.

"We have some core views as Americans about the universality of certain rights -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly -- that we think are very important and that transcend cultures," Obama said during Wednesday's press conference.

"I have been very candid with President Hu about these issues."

Hu at first did not answer a US reporter's question about human rights, but prompted to respond later, said it had not been translated for him, and launched into a detailed defense of China's record.

He said China had made "enormous progress" on human rights, but argued his was a vast nation with many social and economic development problems, apparently rationalizing US criticisms of its behavior.

"We do believe that we also need to take into account the different national circumstances when it comes to the universal value of human rights," Hu said, but admitted "a lot needs to be done in China in terms of human rights."