Washington, 24 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- President Bill Clinton faced a fresh controversy on the eve of his nine-day, five-city tour of China when the Chinese government revoked the visas of three journalists employed by the U.S. Government-funded Radio Free Asia.
In a brief meeting with reporters Tuesday, Clinton said he found the Chinese action objectionable and he urged Beijing to reconsider.
"Well, I am aware of the Chinese refusal. I think it's a highly objectionable decision. We will protest it, and we hope they'll reconsider it.
And actually, it's rather ironic because this decision to deny the visa to the Radio Free Asia journalists is depriving China of the credit that it otherwise would have gotten for giving more visas to a more diverse group of journalists and allowing more different kinds of people in there than they have ever done before."
Several members of Congress demanded that Clinton do more than object and they urged him to insist that the three journalists be allowed to accompany him on the visit that starts today.
The Chinese have made no secret of their dislike for Radio Free Asia (RFA). It is an independent news organization that subsists on annual grants from the U.S. Congress. Its aim is to broadcast uncensored news and information into China, and other Asian countries under totalitarian regimes.
RFA went on the air in August 1996. It is modeled after Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, the U.S.-funded stations that broadcast into the former Soviet Union and several countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
China contends that RFA is meddling in China's internal affairs, a charge the U.S. says is not true. Clinton recently praised the radio for its efforts to bring unbiased information to the Chinese people.
Press reports say the Chinese action in revoking the visas caught the White House by surprise. The three were told by the Chinese Embassy in Washington over the weekend that their visas were being revoked. However, Pat Lute, a spokeswoman for RFA, told RFE/RL that the notice was only confirmed by the White House press and travel offices on Tuesday morning.
Clinton said the U.S. will protest the Chinese action. He said it will only serve to undercut what he said was the good will that China had built up by granting visas to the largest and most diverse press corps in history.
The president had already been sharply criticized by many members of Congress for carrying out his plan to visit China. Several are especially upset by Clinton's plan to adhere to Chinese protocol and make his official arrival in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The square was the site of a massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators by the Chinese Army in June 1989.
Congressional critics of China's human rights record contend the president should only visit China if he plans on making a strong statement on human rights. Other members of Congress accuse China of supplying sophisticated missile technology to Iran.
On Tuesday, several members of Congress, including House of Representatives International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-New York), said that if Clinton intends to take part in a Tiananmen Square welcoming ceremony, he must at least use the opportunity to speak out for human rights. Said Gilman: "It's deeply distressing that the president is going to China and will be greeted on the blood-stained Tiananmen Square. China's pro- democracy dissidents and relatives of those who died on that square all share the thought of the horror of the president of the United States standing next to the murderers of students and workers. It's almost too unbelievable to be true."
Gilman said if Clinton visits the square, he should, "demonstrate his commitment to the values and ideals," of freedom and democracy by taking with him an American flag, a copy of the U.S. Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. Gilman said Clinton should present these symbols of freedom in the U.S. to the Chinese leadership.
Gilman said the revocation of the RFA correspondent visas, "is insulting to our country, to our government, to all Americans everywhere and to the presidency itself." He said: "it shows what China's leaders resort to when they're concerned about the freedom of communication."
However, there is also widespread support for Clinton's trip in the U.S., particularly in the business community, which contends that a nation of more than 1 billion people cannot be ignored or isolated.