WASHINGTON // The US House of Representatives speaker, John Boehner, said he raised the need for stronger intellectual property protections and improved human rights in China with the country's president, Hu Jintao, yesterday.
Mr Boehner, a Republican, also raised concerns about "curtailing the aggressive behaviour of North Korea" in a meeting with Mr Hu on Capitol Hill. "And finally, we raised our strong, ongoing concerns with reports of human-rights violations in China," Mr Boehner said in a statement.
Mr Hu was scheduled to cap off his visit to Washington yesterday with more meetings with some of his other congressional critics.
Congress is filled with anti-China sentiment and US-China relations was one of few foreign policy issues to figure prominently in mid-term elections last year.
The Chinese president was also to meet Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House minority leader, as well as other senior legislators. Mr Hu later headed to the Senate for talks with the Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid - who branded his guest "a dictator" on Tuesday then withdrew the remark - and the Senate foreign relations committee chairman, John Kerry. Mr Reid and Mr Boehner declined invitations to a state dinner for Mr Hu on Wednesday, as did the Republican Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell.
Criticism during Mr Hu's visit has come from across party lines. Besides Mr Reid's "dictator" comment, the Republican congresswoman, Dana Rohrabacher, characterised Mr Hu as a "gangster", as she spoke to CNN on Wednesday, and later likened the Chinese government to "Nazis" in a separate radio interview.
The atmosphere on Capitol Hill is in stark contrast to the conciliatory note struck by Barack Obama, the US president, on Wednesday.
Several billion dollars in trade deals were signed, and even the contentious issue of human rights was addressed. Mr Hu remarked that China is committed to human rights domestically, but that "a lot still needs to be done". China traditionally refuses to comment publicly on its record.
While most of the visit has been devoted to serious business, Mr Obama entertained Mr Hu at a state dinner on Wednesday, only the US president's third since entering office.
Toasting the night's events, Mr Obama remarked: "May they grow together in friendship. May they prosper together in peace. And may they realise their dream of the future for themselves, for their children and for their grandchildren."
After his meetings yesterday with politicians, Mr Hu was scheduled to travel to Chicago where he will meet the Chicago mayor, Richard M Daley, and visit Walter Dayton College Prep, which hosts the largest Mandarin language programme in the US.
In Beijing, pressure groups yesterday insisted Mr Hu's comments that China "has made enormous progress" in human rights ran contrary to the trend of recent years.
At a press conference with Mr Obama on Wednesday, Mr Hu acknowledged "a lot still needs to be done", but insisted there had been improvements "recognised widely in the world".
Yet Wang Songlian, the research co-ordinator for Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said yesterday a "steadily deteriorating" climate had resulted in longer jail sentences for dissidents, a "more systematic crackdown" on civil society and greater numbers of security forces in areas known for dissent.
"This was just a gesture," she said of Mr Hu's comments. "The Chinese government is repressing human rights. The government has become more efficient at controlling dissident elements. The sentencing of human rights defenders seems to be more severe. The situation in minority areas like Tibet and Xinjiang has really got worse, with a heavy military presence."
While saying China "definitely" had a better human-rights record than in the past, Ren Yue, a human rights specialist at Hong Kong University, said Mr Hu was largely trying to downplay the subject.
"It's not really the focus of his talk. That's basically something he would rather not talk about, or at least not catch the attention of the press on," he said.
With "the maintenance of social stability" China's communist party's principal concern, Mr Hu's comments should not be taken as a sign the government may grant its citizens more freedom, said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong. Mr Obama's non-confrontational language at the press conference "reflected the objectives of the visit".
"Both the US and China would like to demonstrate to the world and the American and Chinese people they want to improve the bilateral relationship and cannot afford to allow this important relationship to deteriorate," Mr Cheng said. "It's a fine balance; the issue has been raised, but there's respect for the Chinese position."
He added that Mr Hu was hoping to "reduce the bad impressions of Americans about China", with his willingness to take part in a press conference.
Mr Hu's visit has dominated the Chinese press, with the state-run China Daily newspaper hailing "a new chapter in relations" and delighting in reporting that Mr Hu was welcomed "with full honours" and was only the third foreign leader to be given a state dinner during Mr Obama's presidency.
The results of Mr Obama and Mr Hu's talks on North Korea, which was among several topics raised during Wednesday's meeting, were yesterday welcomed by the South Korean foreign ministry.
In particular, Seoul said it was pleased by a joint statement that "expressed concern regarding [North Korea's] claimed uranium enrichment programme". That was the first time China has voiced reservations about Pyongyang's programme.
*with additional reporting by Reuters