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China: Clinton's Visit Regarded A Success

  • Bruce Pannier

Prague, 1 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The nine-day visit of the United States President Bill Clinton to China is widely regarded as very successful. Even the Chinese media say this. A Hong Kong newspaper reported two days ago (June 30) that "the task of publicizing the values of the United States during this trip has already been fulfilled by half."

The Chinese print media have never been in any doubt about the success of the trip. Before the visit even started the catch phrase was "the world's largest developing nation and the world's largest developed nation."

A report aired by Hong Kong's "Zhongguo Tongxun She" (owned by the Chinese government) on June 19 suggested that the U.S. since World War Two, "had obtained the enormous market of Europe by means of the Marshall Plan. In the 1950s and 1960s it obtained Japan's market by assisting Japanese revitalization." So, "If the United States wants to maintain its original position in the next century it must obtain an enormous market similar to that of China."

President Bill Clinton is representing the American people. The Chinese press seem to like what they see.

President Clinton and his wife visited a village outside Xian before flying on to Beijing. Xinhua reported the Clintons met with "local farmers, a primary school teacher, an entrepreneur and a university student." Staged, perhaps, checked and certainly approved by the Chinese authorities beforehand. But to China's large population, which rarely if ever sees their own state leaders in person, it says something. The leader of a great power talking to a farmer in a village.

The "debate" or press conference with Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin broadcast live in China on June 27 was widely touted in the west as a success for Clinton. What he said may have impressed some Chinese watching the conference as well. Clinton raised the issues of human rights, the Dalai Lama and Tibet, Taiwan and even Tiananmen Square or as the Chinese press refers to it the "June 4 incident."

But if this conference was a victory for Clinton it was equally so for Jiang. The Chinese president was obviously prepared for Clinton's comments. Responses came quickly and calmly from Jiang and he never lost the air of confidence and nor showed a hint of arrogance. His demeanor also says something to the Chinese people.

The Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao reported on June 30 that the televised press conference was "the most pleasant surprise." The same paper continued "what was most meaningful was the unprecedented confidence demonstrated by China..." And when the two presidents discussed issues "sensitive to China" what was seen was "China's daring to discuss these questions with the Americans..." which "fully shows China's confidence toward the current stability in politics, the economy and society."

Another Hong Kong paper, Wen Wei Po, reported the same day that the debate must have "pleasantly surprised U.S. officials and media. They had never thought that China could handle 'extremely sensitive issues' in such a transparent manner."

Clinton's address to students at Beijing University received less attention. Again from Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po on June 30, there was "surprise" that students at the university "questioned President Clinton incisively and directly." Among the questions asked was "why does the U.S constantly interfere in China's internal affairs by selling arms to Taiwan which is part of China?" "How would the president feel if Chinese students greeted Clinton with protests?" Such questions' according to the Wen Wei Po article, "accurately reflected the queries that had lain buried in the hearts of ordinary Chinese people."

But, Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao wrote on June 30 that though the speech and Q & A were broadcast live on television, "the number of people watching coverage of the speech was not that large. Among those who did watch it was rare to find anyone who watched the coverage from beginning to end because it was Monday and thus they are all busy at work."

Still the paper admitted that "Clinton's speech at Beijing University has not only made Clinton the first foreign leader to obtain this special honor, but will also the first one to write a new chapter in the history of Sino-U.S. relations." And that "Clinton also gave brilliant answers," the paper said.

Although the trip has been seen by the western media as a resounding success for Clinton, the Chinese media have been calling it a draw between Clinton and Chinese leaders, and possibly even a victory for China. Questions from the students at Beijing University show that few are now willing to go the route of the students on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Clinton may have given the Chinese people some food for thought but the Chinese media have kept the plate this food is served on small and the messages share space with traditional Chinese cuisine.