BEIJING - - Polite applause and attentive smiles greeted President Barack Obama as he traveled through China, but there was no indication that his powers of persuasion budged the Chinese on key positions. To the contrary, the Chinese appeared to be digging in their heels on the issue of currency and remaining noncommittal on nuclear nonproliferation.
Hours after Obama, standing side by side with Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People, praised China's commitments to "move toward a more market-oriented exchange rate over time," a senior Chinese official called a news conference to defend China's policy of sustaining the yuan's position against the dollar, which helps keep the price of Chinese goods low.
"We maintained a stable yuan during the financial crisis, which not only helped the global economy but also the stability of the world's financial markets," He Yafei, deputy foreign minister, said Tuesday.
On another high-priority item, Iran's nuclear proliferation, Obama did not get the commitment he sorely wanted of Chinese support for tougher sanctions. With its extensive oil interests in Iran influencing its policies toward Tehran, China is increasingly viewed as an obstacle to nuclear nonproliferation.
"I would not say that we got an answer today from the Chinese, nor did we expect one," said Jeffrey Bader, director of East Asia Affairs on the National Security Council, after the meeting Tuesday between the presidents. He conceded the Chinese were less worried about Iran's nuclear program than North Korea's.
During the news conference at the Great Hall of the People, where the presidents each read 15-minute statements outlining the highlights of the meetings as they perceived them, Hu conspicuously omitted mention of both the currency and Iran.
After the ritual handshake and posing for photographs, the leaders left the podium - refusing to answer questions from the media, which is unusual for a news conference, even in China.
It was in keeping with the character of a presidential visit notable for its formality and lack of spontaneity. Every aspect of Obama's visit was carefully scripted, with the Chinese government taking pains to make sure nothing was left to chance. During Obama's "town hall" meeting in Shanghai on Monday, the 50 students selected to attend were mostly officers of the Communist Youth League. Wary that Obama might say something provocative, the Chinese government refused the White House requests that the event be broadcast on nationwide television. Instead, it was broadcast only on Shanghai television.
Coverage of Obama's visit was also subdued, with noticeably fewer stories in the Chinese newspapers and shorter television reports than during other presidential visits.
In fact, it was difficult to find anybody in Beijing who would express any real enthusiasm for Obama's visit. Even at a shop selling Obama souvenirs, the reaction was ho-hum. "Obama coming here doesn't have anything to do with us. He's the president of the United States. We're Chinese," said Yang Xiuying, a clerk at a Beijing store selling dolls of Obama dressed as Superman.