BEIJING — As Chinese leader Jiang Zemin tours America this week, he will likely try to repeat the magic that his predecessor, Deng Xiaoping, displayed on his trip 17 years ago.
During that whirlwind nine days in 1979, the late Deng captured the imagination of American citizens and cynics, moguls, and media alike, transforming Sino-US ties and China's image.
Not only did his trip come just weeks after Beijing ended decades of isolation by forging diplomatic ties with Washington, but the diminutive Deng seemed a natural at posing for the cameras.
Spare of speech, he let American television commentators fill in rosy voice-overs predicting a new era of friendship and harmony between the Pacific Rim giants during meetings at the White House.
Pithy statements by Deng like "We came to the US with a message of friendship" seemed to wipe out in one breath 30 years of hostilities between the world's largest communist nation and the leader of the "free world."
Images of Deng wearing a cowboy hat at a Texas barbecue and maneuvering a lunar module at the Johnson Space Center were meshed together into what seemed to be a new Chinese-American opera, with Deng as superstar.
"Deng's tour of the US in 1979 opened an unbelievably romantic period in US-China ties," says a Western diplomat here. "Each side was somewhat blinded by the new relationship - so much so that many Americans forgot China was still a communist country."
The American press, eager to set up bureaus in one of the world's most mysterious and isolated countries, seemed to conspire in fashioning the dreamy Chinese-American drama.
In what was probably the last time a Chinese Communist leader ever praised the American press, Deng said: "I wish to thank ... our American media friends."
"You made a great effort to enhance understanding between the Chinese and American peoples," he added.
These days, Beijing charges that the Western press is conspiring to demonize China with reports about persecution of political, religious, or ethnic groups, or on its military modernization program.
Visits just after taking power
Just as Deng Xiaoping's tour came soon after gaining power, so Jiang is visiting America just weeks after consolidating his post.
Much as he would like to transform his trip into a sequel of the 1979 rapprochement, sea changes in the US-China relationship render that an unlikely outcome. Massive prodemocracy marches that rocked China in 1989 unleashed a well-spring of empathy for Chinese youths in the US. But Beijing's armed crackdown triggered a tide of resentment against China's leaders that has yet to ebb.
"The romanticism of the early Deng era has been replaced by a much more realistic view of each other," says the diplomat. "Differences that were airbrushed out of the Sino-American picture during the rosy 1980s now frame the entire relationship."
"China's leaders don't understand the depth and scope of their negative image dating from the crackdown on Tiananmen in 1989," says another Western official.
"The Clinton administration is describing Jiang's trip as the 'renormalization of US-China ties' in the wake of Tiananmen," he says. "Yet the American people are not going to forgive and forget the massacre of unarmed protesters until Beijing apologizes and frees the activists who are still jailed," he adds.
"Washington and Beijing have exchanged 'wish lists' of concessions that should be made to ensure a successful summit," says a Chinese scholar with high-level government contacts.
"In a reflection of how great the divide is between the two sides, not a single item on the two lists matches," he notes.
"Washington wants Beijing to make dramatic changes in its treatment of political activists, religious groups, and Tibetans," he says. "It also seeks guarantees that China will cease sales of conventional weapons and nuclear technology to Iran."
"China's Communist leaders, in turn, have asked the US to halt major arms sales to Taiwan and to lift sanctions dating from the Tiananmen era," says the Chinese scholar.
"Beijing has also called for permanent most-favored-nation trade status and the removal of barriers on the sale of American nuclear plants and supercomputers," he adds.
While official ties between the two nations are on the mend eight years after being frozen in the post-Tiananmen era, "Jiang Zemin is going to face a number of protests in American cities and grilling in [the US] Congress," says the Western diplomat.
When Deng visited in 1979, "there was a broad consensus within the American government on embracing China almost as an ally," he says.
"But today there are many different interest groups, both Democratic and Republican, religious and secular, that want to ensure we do not misjudge China again," he says.
"Jiang may believe that by visiting sites like Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he can create an image as an admirer of American-style liberty," the diplomat added.
"But without some real, dramatic gesture on improving China's rights record, this summit is likely to be lim