China seeks to reassure nervous US on 'state' visit

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The Independent US

President Hu Jintao begins his first formal visit to the US as China's head of state today, attending a dinner with business leaders and state politicians at Bill Gates' digital "home of the future" in Seattle.

It's a business-focused start to his week-long trip, but all eyes will be on Mr Hu's meeting with President George Bush in Washington on Thursday.

The Chinese President's visit takes place amid rising tension over the US trade deficit with China and ongoing questions about its human rights record. In fact, there is even a diplomatic row over whether this trip actually constitutes a "state visit" at all. While Mr Gates is happy to lay on dinner for Mr Hu, Mr Bush won't be staging a state banquet, much to Beijing's chagrin. The two leaders will do lunch instead.

The Chinese have gone all out to smooth relations and prepare the ground. Beijing has released a number of key political prisoners; held out an olive branch of sorts to Taiwan, albeit one that Taipei can in no way accept; and offered hope that the exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama may visit China soon, for the first time in nearly 50 years.

But the US trade deficit is proving politically awkward for Mr Bush. There is a widespread perception that cheap Chinese goods are flooding the US market and causing job losses.

Washington officials complain that China's currency has been kept artificially weak to boost the country's exporting performance. But Mr Hu insists China is not seeking growth at any cost.