Since Mr. Hu last visited the White House in 2006, his country's influence has surged and its relationship with the U.S. is now widely recognized as the world's most important bilateral matchup. In some ways ties have strengthened, as in the growing trade and business evident in a series of big commercial deals signed this week. But the two also seem increasingly buffeted by disagreements including Beijing's handling of North Korea, China's own military expansion, its exchange-rate policies and its treatment of foreign businesses.
Mr. Hu's arrival—for China's first state visit to the U.S. since 1997—was accompanied by a Chinese advertising blitz meant to showcase its "soft power," using images of ordinary Chinese citizens and celebrities like NBA star Yao Ming, Web tycoon Jack Ma, and a quartet of fashion models in a minute-long ad. The Chinese-produced video—to run on television and 300 times a day in New York's Times Square for a month—is aimed at showing Americans a different face of China. Rather than a rival accused of manipulating its currency and siphoning U.S. jobs, Beijing wants Americans to think of sports stars, Internet entrepreneurs, and astronauts.
The Obama administration also has been pressing China to make big investments and splashy joint ventures as a way to demonstrate concrete achievements. On Tuesday, it orchestrated a series of energy-related announcements by U.S. and Chinese business leaders intended to show the upside of working together.
Also, as Mr. Hu arrived, documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal showed that a Chinese firm has agreed to invest $2 billion in a North Korean industrial zone, challenging U.S. policy isolating North Korea and serving as a reminder of the potential limits of Chinese cooperation there. Beijing suggested Tuesday the U.S. needs to remove barriers to Chinese companies' investment, even as a survey of U.S. businesses in Shanghai underlined corporate anxiety about lack of a level playing field in China. Multinationals have grown increasingly frustrated that Beijing has adopted policies that threaten to co-opt their technology and favor Chinese companies that have become competitive globally.
Mr. Hu, in responses this week to questions from The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, suggested he wanted to move past such tensions with the U.S. where possible. "The strategic significance and global impact of China-U.S. relations have been on the rise," Mr. Hu wrote. "We both stand to gain from a sound China-U.S. relationship, and lose from confrontation."
Mr. Hu landed late Tuesday afternoon at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, was greeted by Vice President Joe Biden, hugged a small boy and shook a few hands. He was scheduled to dine Tuesday night with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton among others.
On Wednesday, the two presidents were to meet again and then join business leaders from Microsoft Corp., General Electric Co. and Boeing Co., among other firms, near the White House. More deals are expected to be announced. On Wednesday night, the first state dinner for China since President Bill Clinton hosted Chinese President Jiang Zemin will be a black-tie affair.
The White House hopes the visit will establish the groundwork for deeper relations. Meanwhile, China's advertising blast is part of a broader push by Beijing to try to put the relationship in human terms and highlight its culture and people to ease fears about its rise.
That use of "soft power"—as scholars describe it, in contrast to the hard power afforded by economic, geopolitical and military clout—will also be highlighted during Mr. Hu's next stop in Chicago starting Thursday. He'll visit a Chinese government-sponsored language-learning center at a local high school, part of a global network of so-called Confucius Institutes designed to spread the use of Mandarin.
China's government was long neglectful of its image overseas, but in recent years it has invested billions of dollars to promote its viewpoints and polish its reputation. Chinese state-run media companies are expanding overseas as well. China Daily, the government English-language newspaper, launched a U.S. edition in 2009. Xinhua news agency started an English-language TV news service last year, and state broadcaster China Central Television recently announced a new English-language documentary channel that will showcase films about China for foreign audiences.
Those efforts come as China's policies and actions are coming under increasing international scrutiny, including its handling of deadly antigovernment riots in Tibet in 2008 and the 11-year prison sentence it gave dissident Liu Xiaobo, who as awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in absentia at a December ceremony.
The image push has expanded enormously in just the five years since Mr. Hu last visited the White House. For instance, China had fewer than 10 Confucius Institutes in the U.S. that year. Today, there are more than 100 institutes and similar Confucius Classrooms in the U.S., and hundreds more in other countries. They are sponsored, and partly funded, by an arm of China's Ministry of Education called the Hanban, which cooperates with schools and universities around the world.
But like so much in China, the soft-power push is led by the government, and it is unclear how much impact it is having wooing U.S. hearts and minds. A survey of 1,503 Americans by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 58% want to build a stronger relationship with China, but 65% see China as either an "adversary" or a "serious problem."
Marketing experts say the state-led soft-power approach has its limits. While Beijing recognizes the value of soft power, it should promote things "which are happening culturally and spontaneously" within the country, such as its vibrant art scene, says Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Chief Executive Miles Young. He says South Korea and Japan have gained global cultural influence that way.
The Times Square ad was ordered up by China's State Council Information Office and produced by ad agency Shanghai Lintas Advertising, which is 20% owned by Interpublic Group of Cos. Chinese officials couldn't be reached and Lintas Advertising declined to comment.