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Monday, April 17, 2006 - Page updated at 03:42 PM

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Two Washingtons, two reactions to Hu

Seattle Times business reporter

When the president of China steps off his plane at Paine Field on Tuesday, he'll get a warmer welcome than he can expect at his next stop, the other Washington.

During President Hu Jintao's 26-hour visit to the Seattle area, his red-carpet treatment will include tours of Boeing and Microsoft and an official dinner hosted by the governor in the home of the world's richest man.

Hu will seek to allay fears that China's growth presents an economic and political threat to the United States. Seattle, with two leading U.S. companies that view China as an unrivaled business opportunity, gives him the perfect setting for that message.

"This Washington is an alternative vision of what the US-China relationship can be," said David Bachman, a professor and China specialist at the University of Washington. "Here we have a state establishment that is almost 100 percent behind encouraging engagement, and a perception that things are moving well on both sides."

President Hu's schedule


Tuesday

Morning arrival at Paine Field, greeted by Gov. Christine Gregoire, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, former Gov. Gary Locke and Boeing Commercial Airplane President Alan Mulally.

Afternoon tour of Microsoft campus with Bill Gates.

Meeting with Chinese community leaders.

Meeting with Gregoire at Fairmont Olympic Hotel.

Dinner hosted by Gregoire at Medina mansion of Bill and Melinda Gates, with 100 business, government and community leaders.

Wednesday

Morning tour of Boeing's Everett plant with Mulally.

Luncheon speech, billed as "a major policy address," at the Future of Flight museum in Everett.

Afternoon departure from Paine Field.

Source: Washington State Planning & Welcoming Committee

In D.C., by contrast, "the whole view is the relationship is negative," Bachman said.

Many in Congress believe that China is trading unfairly, from its currency policy favoring Chinese exports to its lack of protection for intellectual property. As a result, the political pressure on China to increase the value of its currency and provide concessions on other fronts will be relentless.

And that's just the economic side. There's equal frustration over national security issues, including U.S. worries over China's military buildup and differences over how to deal with nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.

Hu will be following in the footsteps of his powerful predecessors, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, who made key stops here on their first trips to the United States.

Starting the visit in Washington state is meant to show how positive relations here could serve as a model for the rest of the country.

But that task will be even more difficult now than it might have been seven months ago, when Hu was originally scheduled to visit Seattle and then the White House. That trip was canceled in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Since last fall, the U.S. trade deficit with China has grown further, and so has U.S. impatience over what China is willing to do about it.

To smooth tensions ahead of the visit, a Chinese delegation has employed some checkbook diplomacy, pledging to buy $16 billion worth of U.S. products.

More than a quarter of that will come from Washington state. Boeing and Microsoft stand to reap substantial benefits from two announcements last week: China's firming up of an order for 80 new 737s, and a new requirement that computer makers install legitimate software before selling their machines in China.

A high-level delegation of more than 120 people is expected to accompany Hu, including Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan and Ambassador to the U.S. Zhou Wenzhong. The eyes of more than a billion people will be fixed on the visit, as 17 Chinese journalists are traveling on the plane with Hu, and dozens more are coming in to cover the events.

Sidney Rittenberg, a business consultant who spent 35 years in China and has met Hu before, described him as "quietly genial, very businesslike, rather modest, and carefully circumspect."

There won't be much chance for ordinary people to see the Chinese leader, or for Hu, 63, to venture outside the corporate gatherings on his schedule.

Traffic alert

Traffic around town may be disrupted during the two-day visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Seattle area, starting Tuesday. For security purposes, police aren't saying where or when traffic might be affected.

Hu is expected to arrive at Everett's Paine Field about 11 a.m. Tuesday and to visit Microsoft's Redmond campus in the afternoon before dinner at Bill Gates' Medina home.

Wednesday, Hu's entourage is expected to tour Boeing's Everett plant shortly after 9 a.m. and to attend a luncheon in Snohomish County before leaving from Paine Field shortly after noon, according to a Seattle Chamber of Commerce spokesman.

Security will be tight. But no street closures have been announced.

Participation in the carefully orchestrated events comes with a high price tag — $20,000 for each of the 15 corporate sponsors who have seats at the Gates dinner and the next-day luncheon, or $7,500 just for a table at the luncheon. The money will pay for costs of the visit.

In downtown Seattle, groups critical of China's regime, including human-rights advocates, Taiwan independence supporters and Falun Gong members, are planning to stage protests.

Hu's handshakes with state leaders, company tours and dinner with Bill Gates will be staged photo opportunities that play well for China's domestic audience. But on policy matters, sentiment within China's collective leadership is likely to limit how far Hu can go in appearing to cede ground to U.S. demands. China has the advantage now that it is financing so much of the U.S. debt.

Trade talks last week that set the stage for Hu's visit produced only a modest outcome. Experts say the agreements that were announced, on expanding U.S. access to Chinese markets and protecting intellectual property, are unlikely to increase U.S. exports to China by more than a few billion dollars.

As a result, experts don't expect Hu's visit "necessarily to put out fires or come through with a cosmic breakthrough," said Joseph Borich, director of the Washington State China Relations Council, "but it's an excellent opportunity for both sides to take some of the sourness out of the relationship."

Washington state has a lot to gain if trade relations remain positive, and much to lose if they don't. Washington state exported about $5 billion, primarily airplanes, to China last year, while $20 billion in imports from the country passed through local ports. Companies here mostly still take a long-term view.

"There's always going to be, in the case of China, bumps in the road," said Larry Dickenson, head of Boeing's Asia sales team. "But that's not going to deter us, because we believe in the relationship."

Microsoft has worked with the Chinese government and industry for more than 15 years on issues that are often sensitive and challenging, said Pamela Passman, vice president for global corporate affairs. "We're encouraged by recent developments," she said. "We recognize it's taken a long time to get here."

For that reason, those companies might be in a better position than U.S. politicians to broach difficult topics.

"If Boeing and Microsoft and others who are seen as deeply engaged and committed to the relationship speak frankly about the stress, that is of real value," said Bachman, the UW professor.

The opportunity is not only about selling goods, it's about selling ideas, said former Gov. Gary Locke, who is highly regarded in China and worked nearly a year to help arrange the visit.

"We'd like them to experience the diversity of people and see firsthand how Americans live," he said. "With these freedoms we're able to innovate, to move our society even farther along. And these freedoms and liberties should not be feared but embraced for unleashing the creativity of people."

In only 26 hours, both Hu and his hosts will have to make every minute count.

"Hu's visit may be the high point in U.S.-China ties for several years," said Bachman.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates contributed to this report.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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