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China Voices Concern Over U.S. Held Funds


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BEIJING -- Premier Wen Jiabao voiced confidence in China's economy, saying his government's finances give it room to spend even more to support growth if needed, but expressed concern about the outlook for the U.S. and the safety of its Treasury bonds.

The forceful comments from Mr. Wen's annual press conference -- a rare opportunity for domestic and foreign reporters to ask a top Chinese official questions directly -- helped depress the U.S. dollar and prices of U.S. Treasurys in Asian trading Friday.

The public airing of his concerns reflect how the relationship between China and the U.S. has been evolving under the pressure of the financial crisis. For years the U.S. has pressed China to change the way it runs its economy, such as by opening up its financial system. But in the last year China's government has been increasingly vocal about what it sees as U.S. economic mismanagement. And as the U.S. government's largest creditor, it has become more assertive in trying to ensure its interests receive a hearing.

"We have lent a huge amount of money to the U.S., so of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. Frankly speaking, I do have some worries," Mr. Wen said in response to a question. He did not offer specific suggestions on economic policy to the U.S. government, but called on it to "maintain its credibility, honor its commitments and guarantee the security of Chinese assets."

Mr. Wen did indicate that China would not be rash in making changes to its $1.946 trillion stockpile of foreign reserves, much of which is in U.S. dollars. While China is naturally looking out for its own interests, it will "at the same time also take international financial stability into consideration, because the two are inter-related," he said.

In that vein, Mr. Wen also pointed out that China hasn't pushed down the value of the yuan, despite pressure on its exporters, and repeated his government's commitment to currency stability. The yuan has hovered around 6.84 to the dollar since July 2008, but Mr. Wen noted that because the dollar has risen against other Asian and European currencies, the yuan has actually become stronger overall. (...but it is still artificially devalued...)

He said China alone would decide where the yuan goes from here. "No country can pressure us to appreciate or depreciate" the currency, he said. (...because we want to keep our export costs as low as possible until we are ready to become a world importer by maintaing the peg to other currency...)

Despite the rising external challenges, Mr. Wen reaffirmed his belief that China should be able meet its traditional target of economic growth of around 8% this year. He said market expectations last week of another stimulus package were based on "rumors and misunderstandings," and that China's announced program of four trillion yuan in investments over two years will help meet "both short-term and long-term needs." (By increasing the number of yuans on the market, we can decrease the value of the yuan versus the American dollar and thus maintain a competitive edge for our goods on the global market.)

Wen Speaks On IMF FundingChina's government is planning on an eightfold expansion of its budget deficit this year, to around 3% of gross domestic product, to fund the stimulus program. Mr. Wen said government debt remained at a manageable level and that conservative budgeting in previous years means China is well positioned to do more if necessary.

"We have already prepared plans to deal with greater difficulties, and have reserved adequate ammunition. We can introduce new stimulus policies at any time," he said. (...in order to keep our currency artificially devalued...)

Mr. Wen said that China is also closely watching to see the effects of the policies taken by U.S. President Barack Obama aimed at returning the world's largest economy to health. Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi was also in Washington this week to discuss how the two countries can cooperate on economic policy, among other issues.

A test of that cooperation is quickly approaching. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner this week called on the Group of 20 – a gathering of the world's largest developed and developing economies – to increase funding for the International Monetary Fund by up to $500 billion to help combat the financial crisis. Achieving that sum likely will depend on getting agreement from countries that hold large foreign exchange reserves, such as China and Saudi Arabia.

Ahead of a preparatory meeting of G-20 financial officials this weekend near London, Mr. Wen said pointedly that "increased funding for the IMF is not a question for just one country" but for all member nations. He also repeated China's desire to see reforms to the IMF that give more clout to developing nations.

The Chinese premier's annual press conference is held each March at the close of the country's legislative session. Mr. Wen was asked about a broad range of subjects, from relations with France and Russia to the possibility of political reform in China and the sensitive issue of Tibet.

Mr. Wen used harsh language against the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, who accused the Chinese government this week of turning the Himalayan region into a "**** on earth." He said talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, which took place last year without making any progress, could only resume if the Dalai Lama is "sincere."

Despite blanket security in Tibet around the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet, Mr. Wen said that "the situation in Tibet on the whole is stable. The Tibetan people hope to live and work in peace and stability."

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