Clinton avoids China disputes, hands out teddy bears

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton passed out teddy bears to Chinese children as she toured the Shanghai World Expo on Saturday and carefully skirted the United States’ many policy disputes with China.

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At the start of a four-day visit whose centerpiece will be talks in Beijing about strategic and economic matters, Clinton spent a misty morning at the Expo, an emblem of China’s rise on the world stage.

Dressed in a powder blue jacket to match the Expo’s plump, cartoonish mascot, Clinton walked through the U.S. and Chinese national “pavilions” shaking hands, posing for pictures and talking up the importance of people-to-people ties.

She avoided any public discussion of the issues that will occupy her in Beijing, including North Korea’s suspected sinking of a South Korean warship, Iran’s nuclear program, and U.S. calls for China to allow its currency to appreciate.

Speaking after her four-hour tour, Clinton suggested the event may mark a watershed in the history of China’s financial hub and richest and most cosmopolitan city.

“It’s like a coming out party for countries and cities,” Clinton told reporters. “There is a real historical significance to them doing this.”

That the chief U.S. diplomat is spending two nights in Shanghai before the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing on Monday and Tuesday illustrates the importance of China’s rising economic and political influence to Washington.

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Clinton began her day at the U.S. pavilion, which was a bare patch of ground less than a year ago with the United States short of money to build it and at risk of missing an event at the top of China’s business and political agenda.

Thanks partly to her intervention, major U.S. companies stepped up to the plate to fund the pavilion, whose attractions include three films highlighting the American way of life.

In one, Americans including basketball stars Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson offered greetings in Chinese.

A second verged on corporate advertising, with an executive discussing the potential of wind to meet China’s burgeoning energy needs with pictures of U.S.-made windmills in the background.

A third was an allegory of what a single person -- in this case a young girl who plants a flower in an abandoned city lot -- can do to improve the environment.

After the film, Clinton handed out teddy bears to children in the audience.

The films made no explicit reference to democracy, human rights, freedom of religion or other political issues where the United States has long criticized China’s record.

The U.S. exhibit ends with a gift shop where a great many products -- from teddy bears and stuffed bison to silver lapel pins and pink cowboy hats -- were all marked “Made in China.”

Editing by Nick Macfie