President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington illustrated travelling Chinese leaders' custom of making pronouncements that are at best coded and largely empty. On human rights, they do not act on what they say. Meanwhile, on economic policy, they do not say how they will act. For example, China is quietly preparing for a most welcome reform of its currency, by first making the Hong Kong renminbi increasingly convertible.
On Wednesday, Mr. Hu said with an air of humility, "A lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights." Similarly in September, Premier Wen Jiabao said in an interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN, "We don't think that we are impeccable in terms of human rights. ... Nonetheless, we are continuing to make efforts to make improvements, and we want to further improve human rights in our country." Mr. Wen has often spoken about political reform and democracy; within China, such statements of his are sometimes censored.
The Chinese government made clear to many other countries that their absence from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in December for Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned human-rights activist, would be evidence of their friendship to China - contradicting Mr. Hu's and Mr. Wen's professed aspirations to human-rights progress.
Likewise, modest efforts at local democracy have not, as some hoped, "percolated" upwards. More candidates than vacancies are permitted in village and county elections, but the local party committee almost always has its way.
On the other hand, without fanfare, the Chinese are taking practical steps to normalize their currency by using Hong Kong as a pilot project for a convertible currency. The use of the Hong Kong version of the renminbi in international trade and finance is now climbing quite quickly. But the public statements of Mr. Hu and Barack Obama did not deal with this hopeful prospect of a substantial reduction of global economic imbalances.
Behind the scenes, there may be some reasonably frank exchanges between Chinese and Western officials - WikiLeaks has revealed a few of these - but the Western public has little cause to pay much heed to the rhetoric of China's leaders, either on promising economic policies or on languishing political reform.
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