Obama has faced criticism for granting the state dinner to the Chinese communist leader, whose visit comes just a month after jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama won the prize the previous year.
At the news conference, Obama described the rights of freedom of speech, religion and assembly as "core views" for Americans and said he drove that home forcefully in his discussions with Hu.
Hu responded that human rights should be viewed in the context of different national circumstances but, in an unusual concession for a Chinese leader on the world stage, acknowledged, "A lot still needs to be done in China on human rights."
He said China was willing to engage in dialogue with the U.S. and other nations on the issue, but countries must exercise "the principle of noninterference in each other's internal affairs" — hinting at China's customary resistance to debate on it.
Rights activists welcomed Hu's comments but said they needed to be backed up by action to ameliorate a host of concerns, including mass detentions without trial in China, persecution of rights activists and ethnic minorities and crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners.
"It's good to hear him make such an acknowledgment, but they are no more than words until we see serious changes in policy and practice," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
She noted that China had issued "similar rhetoric" in the past.
And China typically defines human rights in terms of improvements in quality of life such as higher incomes and better living conditions, rather than civil liberties such as freedom of speech that define such values in the West.
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