China: After the Great Debate

Clinton's tete-a-tete with Jiang Saturday has Chinese wondering just how much is now open for discussion.

All of China seems abuzz over how the unprecedented, live televised debate between the leaders of the world's democratic superpower and of a rapidly rising and evolving Beijing may portend a turning point in Chinese history.

In cafes, restaurants, and campuses across the Chinese capital, discussion of the Clinton-Jiang exchange is surpassing even viewership of the World Cup soccer matches among citizens from every walk of life. It is a discussion that is sure to continue for months to come.

Chinese from every corner of society say that a new era of "glasnost" may be in the making following the extraordinary press conference on Saturday.

"President Clinton's visit, and Jiang Zemin's remarkable new openness to dialogue, is rekindling a dream that has not been dreamt here since 1989: Friendship expands rapidly with the US as China metamorphoses into a democracy," says a young advertising executive in Beijing.

During the 70-minute meeting, Mr. Jiang and Mr. Clinton sparred on everything from Taiwan to the imprisonment of Chinese dissidents to the army's firing on student demonstrators here in 1989.

Referring to the use of tanks and troops in Tiananmen Square nine years ago, a subject that has been largely banned from public discourse here, Clinton said that he and the American people believe "the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong."

While Jiang repeated the Communist Party's official line that force had been used against protesters to preserve social peace, the fact that he agreed to broadcast the news conference is being hailed as a great step toward liberalization.

"This is the first time since the Tiananmen Square crackdown that a dialogue has been reopened between the forces of democracy and the [Communist] Party over the country's future," says Wang Youcai, a 1989 student leader who was imprisoned for two years following "Operation Tiananmen. The big question now is whether the Party will allow the Chinese people to join the debate over China's recent past and long-range future," he says.

Conservatives in both Washington and Beijing continue to regard the political titan on the other side of the Pacific as a potential threat, and have sharply criticized the US-China summit.

Yet Mr. Wang and many other liberal students and scholars here say Clinton's nine-day trip to China could very well be the dawn of a 21st century friendship between the US and a China that is jettisoning huge chunks of its socialist past.

The ongoing Clinton-Jiang summit signals a degree of trust between the two countries that has not been seen since the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators.

The most concrete sign of an evolving partnership between the US and Asia's emerging economic superpower was a pact that requires each side to stop targeting the other's cities with nuclear-tipped missiles. The agreement will mean that for the first time since the then-Soviet Union acquired the bomb nearly a half century ago, no nuclear arms will be pointed at the US.

"The nuclear pact is largely symbolic because missiles can be retargeted within minutes," says a Western official. "But its real significance is that this is just one of the many signs of great progress towards a new US-China partnership into the next century," he adds.

Yet many Chinese say the weapons treaty is just the tip of a symbolic iceberg in the improvement of Sino-US ties, and in the changes that are being triggered here through a post-Tiananmen rapprochement with Washington.

Even normally apolitical figures here seem to be transfixed by the airing of long-taboo subjects like the Tiananmen attack and the fate of 2,000 political prisoners in China.

"Clinton sparked a debate on several subjects that have been hidden away for many years, and it's healthy that the Chinese people are finally being allowed to sift through their past," says a recent college graduate during a break in the World Cup series. "The [Chinese] government's agreement to broadcast Jiang's talks with Clinton is opening a new era of openness here that would have been unimaginable while Deng Xiaoping was alive," he adds.

Since the 1997 death of Deng, who ordered martial-law troops to crush student protests here nine years ago, Jiang has loosened government controls over huge swaths of society and the economy, and some Chinese say the party increasingly appears to be communist in name only.

While the proliferation of Internet usage, satellite TV, and mobile phones is fueling a big-bang-like information revolution here, Beijing's thought police still try to ensure that public debate on politically sensitive topics is kept to a minimum.

Yet many Chinese scholars and students say there are growing signs that party chief Jiang Zemin is moving toward a new level of tolerance in the post-Deng era, and that Clinton's visit here is boosting that trend.

"By agreeing to debate Clinton on human rights and political prisoners, Jiang is signaling that a whole new spectrum of topics are now open to discussion," says a former dissident in Beijing.

Lu Siqing, a former protest leader who now heads a human rights monitoring group in Hong Kong, agrees. "The US-China press conference was Clinton's greatest victory during this summit," says Mr. Lu, who fled the Chinese mainland several years ago.

"I have been receiving calls nonstop from people throughout China who saw the broadcast and want to know if this is a major signal of a new political era," he adds.

'IT'S still too early to leap to conclusions," he says, "but the Communist Party agreed to the broadcast, and that is a big step toward freedom of speech in China," he adds. Former dissident Wang, whose name appeared on the government's most-wanted list of student protest leaders following the 1989 crackdown, agrees.

"I hope this means that China is once again on the road toward democracy," he says in a telephone interview from the east coast city of Hangzhou. "It could mean the beginning of a future where the US and China, as two great democratic powers, together help ensure world peace in the 21st century."

The next major test of Beijing's moves toward glasnost will come when Clinton gives a speech at Beijing University - hotbed of the 1989 democracy movement - today.

"We've asked for the speech to be broadcast live on Chinese television, but the authorities seem to be frightened about what Clinton might say," says the Western official. In contrast to Saturday's press conference, Jiang won't have the opportunity to respond to Clinton's remarks. On the eve of the talk, the official adds, "the Chinese have still not given us any firm answer."

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