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Balancing all of these issues requires top Obama administration officials to walk a fine line.

Mrs. Clinton said the U.S. relationship is complex.

“This is not a relationship that fits neatly into the black-and-white categories like friend or rival,” she said. “We are two complex nations with very different histories, with profoundly different political systems and outlooks.”

In the same speech, Mrs. Clinton criticized China’s imprisonment of Liu Xiaobao, the democracy activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

“We urge China to protect the rights of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, the rights of all people to express themselves and worship freely, and the rights of civil society and religious organizations to advocate their positions within a framework of the rule of law,” Mrs. Clinton said. “And we believe strongly that those who advocate peacefully for reform within the constitution, such as the Charter ‘08 signatories, should not be harassed or prosecuted.”

Mr. Obama met with five Chinese human rights activists at the White House on Thursday. Chinese leaders in the past have criticized U.S. statements about human rights in the country as a form of unwarranted interference in the country’s internal affairs.

“We believe that setting an example here is important, too, frankly,” Mr. Donilon said. “And our efforts to look very hard at our own legal regimes here, including banning torture and other practices, I think are very important in terms of setting an example. And we pursue a number of dialogues with the Chinese on this subject.”