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Shaping agenda ahead of Hu's visit

BEIJING – It’s the day before the start of President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States, and policymakers, activists and pundits on both sides of the Pacific are hard at work trying to steer the message of the upcoming talks.

Xinhua/Ju Peng

The Chinese president’s first state visit with full diplomatic honors is being put under a microscope since it comes as the two nations are at a crossroads on a slew of sensitive issues ranging from currency valuation to human rights to regional security.

After a patchy 2010 in which Sino-U.S. relations were rocked by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, allegations of currency manipulation of the yuan by China and the detention of Nobel Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, both sides are eager to strike a conciliatory tone to show that their relationship is still strong and productive.

However, the desire for a successful visit has not stopped each side from posturing, as both try to control the message on an increasingly convoluted range of issues.

At the cabinet/minister level, the verbal barbs started up last week with a speech by Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner. He called on China again to allow the undervalued renminbi to rise and to curb intellectual property violations. Taking a similar tack on intellectual property, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke warned of shifts in “global stability” due to trade imbalances and a lack of transparency in Chinese governmental decisions.

Unperturbed, Chinese finance ministers responded with concern over U.S. monetary policy and suggested that the undervalued renminbi is more a product of a weaker U.S. dollar and strong Chinese manufacturing competitiveness. At a press briefing last week in Beijing, Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai went further and stated that this week his government is seeking a “positive statement” on the security of China’s assets in America.

As CNBC noted: “China has amassed the world's biggest stockpile of foreign exchange reserves at $2.85 trillion, an estimated two-thirds of which is invested in U.S. assets.”

Meanwhile at the business level, Silicon Valley businesses – the tech-hub that is generating much of the innovation desired by Beijing – aired its grievances this week, arguing that bureaucratic hurdles in China has limited their growth opportunities.

U.S. companies have said their attempts to compete on the mainland have been thwarted by procurement policies that favor domestic companies and their “indigenous innovation,” as well as required technology swaps and partnerships with domestic companies as pre-conditions for entry into the China market.

At the grassroots level, human rights advocates representing a range of issues from Tibetan freedom to the Taiwan issue have called for protests during Hu’s visit. President Obama himself met five human rights advocates last week in a bid to learn more about the conditions in China. (Hu’s April 2006 visit to the White House was marred by protestors from the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is banned in China).

Not to be out done, Hu delivered a withering critique of American fiscal policy, saying that the international currency system in which the U.S. dollar remains the primary reserve currency is a “product of the past.”

It was also announced late last week that China’s State Council Information Office would be running advertisements on American television during Hu’s visit. The ads are designed to show the softer side of China with the help of celebrities like Jacky Chan, Yao Ming and Chinese astronaut, Yang Liwei.

All of this should lead to a busy week of China coverage we haven’t seen since the halcyon days of last year’s “Why do great nations fail?” political ad.