WASHINGTON — When Chinese leader Jiang Zemin enters the restored Georgian governor's mansion in Williamsburg, Va., tomorrow, the imagery of American democracy will be hard to miss.
Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, impersonated by actors, will greet Mr. Jiang for a chat. Outside, in another photo op, the Communist Party chief will have a chance to put on a Paul Revere-style tricorn hat. "[Jiang] liked the idea of the hat and decided to go for that," says Williamsburg publicist Sophie Hart.
Beijing has micromanaged the itinerary and details of Jiang's eight-day visit in an attempt to put a more enlightened face on China's Communist leadership, observers say.
"[Jiang] is associating himself very deliberately with the symbolism of American democracy," says University of Michigan China expert Ken Lieberthal. "He's counting on hitting a home run."
But the staging could easily backfire. For while Jiang hobnobs with the Founding Fathers, strolls through Independence Hall, or even sings "Yankee Doodle" - as he is known to do - protesters will dog him at every stop. Jiang, they will remind Americans, is the man who dismissed the 1989 massacre of Beijing demonstrators as "much ado about nothing." Last month, his party rejected calls from its own ranks to revise the official verdict on the Tiananmen Square protests.
In an ironic attempt to smooth Jiang's way, China last week called on Washington to curb the demonstrators - much as Chinese police routinely round up dissidents before major events. The answer was no. "We will not abrogate the US Constitution in order to provide the right atmosphere for this visit," said US National Security Council official Jeff Bader.
Such awkward, last-minute maneuvers epitomize the kind of cultural misjudgements common in US-China relations. More fundamentally, they underscore how strong ideological opposition - in America as well as China - is complicating pragmatic efforts by Jiang and President Clinton to bring about a rapproachment.
"Public debates about this bilateral relationship have taken on an extremely sharp edge," notes Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at The Brookings Institution in Washington. "The challenge for both leaders," says Richard Solomon, president of the US Institute of Peace, "is to try to strengthen the political middle behind the relationship."
IN the United States, popular attitudes on China are far more divided and negative today than in the 1970s and 1980s, a period when the two countries normalized relations and China broke with Maoist strictures to embark on sweeping market-oriented economic reforms, experts say.
At that time, the US public, like American missionaries of past generations, was enthralled by "a great nation finally coming to its senses" and being transformed in America's image, says Richard Madsen, author of "China and the American Dream." "It was comforting that a country like China was signing on to [American] principles," says Madsen, a professor at the University of California, San Diego.
The 1989 Tiananmen crackdown shattered this dream, and Americans turned from "a hopeful love to a disillusioned animosity," says Madsen. When China continued to boom economically despite widespread political repression, US public opinion grew deeply polarized.
Today, in a debate rooted more in American ideals than in China's complex reality, eclectic interest groups ranging from Christian conservatives to labor activists are attacking China on moral grounds. Recent polls show that more than two-thirds of Americans believe China should improve human rights or else lose its favored-trade status. In contrast, business interests and the political mainstream argue for engaging China through trade and other ties. Still others view China as a rising military menace, with more than 20 percent of Americans considering China an enemy.
In China, meanwhile, public attitudes have also undergone dramatic shifts as Marxism has lost its grip. In the early 1980s, China's opening and reforms led many Chinese to idealize the freedom, wealth, and more liberal values of the West. But later, Western values were also blamed for the spread of materialism, crime, and corruption.
In recent years, China's growing power has spurred a new nationalism. Anti-American sentiment - often promoted by official propaganda - has flared following run-ins with the United States over issues such as China's lost Olympic bid, Taiwan, and trade. Popular books accuse America of attempting to "contain" and "demonize" China, while others urge China to "say no."
To a degree, such mixed public sentiments are already shaping the outcome of this week's US-China summit, observers say.
In a rare address on China last Friday, for example, Clinton appeared to appeal to Chinese pride by pointedly referring to China as "a great nation" that will "choose its own destiny." On the other hand, he criticized Beijing's stiffling of dissent.
For his part, Jiang has peppered his trip with symbolic gestures, such as ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. "Jiang wants to lift his image in the United States to solidify his position" in Beijing, says a Chinese legal scholar.