Obama begins China visit with citizens' questions, a full agenda

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 15, 2009 

SHANGHAI — President Barack Obama kicks off his visit to China with a town-hall meeting Monday in Shanghai, a rare chance for the Chinese people — university students in the audience and people of all ages who sent questions via the Internet — to communicate directly with a Western leader.

Cold rain was pouring Sunday night (Standard China Time) when Obama landed in the mainland's most Western-influenced city. He gave a quick wave, but saved his words for the morning. After the town hall meeting, he is to fly to Beijing, where he has dinners, meetings and tours scheduled through Wednesday.

He'll visit South Korea on Thursday before heading home from a four-nation Asia tour. He began with stops in Japan and at the APEC summit in Singapore, where he said Sunday there would be a new U.S.-Russia nuclear arms agreement by year's end, but also signaled a global warming treaty can't be completed at next month's world meeting in Copenhagen.

In talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao and others, Obama expects to cover a wide terrain. Topics include the global economy, global warming and joint clean energy projects; disagreements over trade and Tibet; nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran; the U.S. war in Afghanistan; and pressing the Chinese to expand human rights and political and religious freedoms.

China, with 1.3 billion people, is important military and, increasingly, economically. It was the second-largest goods trading partner with the U.S. last year. Of $407.5 billion total, imports of Chinese goods outpaced U.S. exports nearly 5-to-1, according to statistics from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Forbes ranked Hu as world's No. 2 most powerful person, in a list released last week; No. 1 was Obama.

While the U.S. is the world's largest economy measured by GDP, China is third and poised to climb. But it is a developing nation with much poverty and low per capita consumption. It's also is the world's top polluter.

As Obama prepared for the town hall meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton planned an early morning tour and fund-raising pitch on Monday for the U.S. pavilion on the grounds of Expo 2010, the world's fair being hosted next year by China in Shanghai.

The Expo theme, "Better City, Better Life," emphasizes sustainable development but also underscores many of China's challenges as a developing nation.

The Chinese made clear earlier this year that they expected the U.S. to take part in an event expected to draw 70 million visitors. The government in Shanghai has undertaken a massive development and citywide beautification effort.

They've erected cartoonish sky blue statues all over the city of the Expo's mascot, Haibao, who looks like a water droplet and whose name translates to sea treasure.

Government officials also have been pressing locals to set aside some traditions, such as wearing pajamas out in public, in time for the Expo. Much as the Olympics drew world attention to Beijing, Shanghai sees the Expo as providing a spotlight.

Clinton has been deeply involved in ensuring a U.S. pavilion would happen, after the Bush administration's failure to lock in left the U.S. participation in question, said Elizabeth Bagley, the State Department's special representative for global partnerships.

"It would (have been) a huge embarrassment not just to the Chinese but to us as Americans to be the only major country not present," added Jose Villarreal, the U.S. Commissioner General to the 2010 World Exposition.

The $61 million project budget, which can't be taxpayer funded under U.S. law, has been tough to raise, especially given the economic crisis. Companies that took bailout money during the economic crisis are precluded from giving.

To date, about $47 million has been committed, from General Electric, Pepsi, Chevron and others. The U.S. pavilion is under construction. Clinton was to meet with more potential U.S. sponsors Monday.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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