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Western Press Review: Clinton In China Viewed From Different Angles

By Joel Blocker/Dora Slaba/Lisa Kammerud

Prague, 29 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators today and over the weekend focus in good part on U.S. President Bill Clinton's current visit to Communist China. They express distinctly different views of the event, sometimes even within the same newspaper.

NEW YORK TIMES: China's leaders demonstrated indifference to Clinton's efforts on their behalf

Thus, the New York Times said in an editorial Saturday (June 27) that "the ceremonial part of President Clinton's welcome may be fit for an emperor, but other aspects of the Chinese Government's behavior have looked like calculated insults." By detaining several democracy advocates during the president's stop in Xian and imposing heavy surveillance on other democrats in Beijing, Chinese leaders have seriously embarrassed Clinton." The paper also wrote: "As Beijing well knows, Clinton took considerable political risks to go through with this trip. By making his presence a pretext for picking up political activists, China's leaders demonstrated indifference to his efforts on their behalf."

NEW YORK TIMES: Chinese leaders may now be somewhat more relaxed about American human-rights criticism

But today the same paper writes that at a joint press conference with President Jiang Zemin Clinton calmed fears that China would exploit his visit to cover what it calls China's "abysmal human-rights record." Today's New York Times editorial says that the decision to broadcast the press conference uncensored was what it describes as "a notable departure" from past Chinese practices." It suggests "that welcome innovation probably reflected China's gratitude for the Clinton Administration's persistence in seeking better relations despite strong, and sometimes justified criticism, in the U.S." The paper was not as favorably impressed with Jiang's answers to questions put to him Saturday. It writes: "Jiang's responses evoked familiar justifications of past and present repression....Chinese leaders may now be somewhat more relaxed about American human-rights criticism, but they still run an unyielding police state."

NEW YORK TIMES: President Jiang was clearly dominant

On the same editorial pages today, New York Times columnist William Safire is far less impressed by Saturday's press conference. He writes: "Those who watched the 70-minute joint press conference....saw an egg-walking American president saying as little as he could get away with about 'the tragic loss of life' more accurately called a massacre in Tiananmen Square. President Jiang was clearly dominant. This was his show. He was so confident beforehand that his American guest would allude to repression in the most gingerly way that he directed it to be shown live on state television." Safire's commentary continues: "Two symbols dismay. One is the insult to the world's intelligence of treating 're-targeting' of missiles away from cities as a serious agreement. It's strictly a (public-relations) stunt. A Chinese missile can be targeted back on Los Angeles in exactly 10 minutes....The other is Clinton's craven abandonment of our tradition of the president alone deciding who will accompany him."

"Throughout the Cold War," Safire continues, "the White House maintained control of its traveling party; anti-Communist journalists and scholars who could never get a visa otherwise would fly in under the president's wing." The commentary notes: "Feng reporter for Radio Free Asia, an independent corporation financed by the U.S. government whose unwelcome truth China tries to jam....He is one of the three Radio Free Asia journalists whose names China struck from the list covering the Clinton visit to China. Clinton immediately wimped out, and explained to Feng in a get-over-it interview that 'every nation reserves to itself the complete and unilateral right to decide its visa policies.'"

WASHINGTON POST: Communist regimes don't reform, they collapse

In a commentary for the Washington Post (IHT, June 29), columnist Jim Hoagland recites a lesson that East Europeans learned nine years ago: "Communist regimes don't reform, they collapse." Hoagland writes: "(Clinton's) trip is likely to demonstrate that he has learned every single fact known to man or woman about China, and none of the truth. He has much company. In the faculty lounges at...prestige (U.S.) universities, on the pages of the Washington Post and other quality newspapers, the latest utterances of kindly Jiang Zemin, portraying China as a new humanistic El Dorado are treated with a gee-whiz attention once given to (former Yugoslav Communist leader) Tito's pronouncements on the coming dominant role on non-alignment in international affairs." Hoagland goes on to say there are less political than economic motives for the U.S. President's caution: "(Clinton) is not much under the influence of the school of reform communism as he is taken with...the merchant-banking (world-view) of the 1990s (which has been paying) attention to China and the emerging markets..." The commentary concludes: "It's more fun to pretend that the decaying, blood-stained gerontocracy in Beijing can stay stable, reform itself and soon lunch with lambs. Why," he asks ironically, "let history be your guide?"

TAGES ANZEIGER: Everything remains as it always was

Switzerland's Tages Anzeiger titles its editorial today, "The West Falls for Clinton's Eyewash." The paper writes: "Peking has learned to cultivate its media image. The regime has found a new style, but in fact everything remains as it always was. The U. S. President is now getting to feel this first hand. He deludes himself by fostering his charm campaign because, bothered by his problems at home, he would like to gain points in his foreign policy." The editorial continues: "The West seems ready to buy Clinton's fraud. Whether this contributes to human rights and democracy in People's China is questionable. The pomp and ceremony accompanying the greeting ceremony on blood-drenched Tiananmen Square, the waiver of talks with (Chinese) dissidents and democratic politicians in Hong Kong --these, too, were indicators. They signaled to the Chinese that Clinton is bowing to the regime."

ECONOMIST: Do not expect miracles

The current issue (dated June 27) of the British weekly Economist warns the U.S. not to pursue a "strategic partnership" with China, a phrase that was used during Jiang's visit to the U.S. last October. The magazine says in an editorial that the notion of "strategic partnership misrepresents China's attitude to its role in the world. In many respects, it has yet to decide whether it will go on being part of the problem or work with others to find a solution." The editorial continues: "For all the talk of partnership. there is much that divides America from China, and indeed China from most of its neighbors. Occasions like this week's summit offer talk over such differences --not least because for many years a rising China will have a greater capacity to do harm in Asia, rather than good. But," concludes the editorial, "do not expect miracles."

CORRIERE DELLA SERA: Clinton has kept his word

The Italian daily Corriere della Sera is more positive about the visit, saying that "Clinton has kept his word. He said he would go to China to promote freedom and democracy and he has done so." The editorial continues: "Following Saturday's vigorous live TV debate with Jiang Zemin, in which he defended human rights, (Clinton) spoke up for religious freedom during a service on Sunday in one of the few churches in Peking. It is not clear whether President Jiang anticipated this Clinton effort. The visit of the American President may stimulate unrest.... and has (already) endowed the opposition with a voice."