HARDLY a conversation with a Chinese intellectual or official passes these days without mention of China's most vexing international unknown: Bill Clinton.
With the US president-elect poised to take office in a few days, fretting over American-Sino relations intensifies. Take a recent seminar at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences. At the gathering attended by a visiting American scholar, academics were bedeviled by the Clinton enigma.
"The consensus was that we should be cautiously hopeful because Clinton has backed off from his strident campaign rhetoric," one Chinese participant said. "But we still felt China should expect troubles on human rights, the huge trade deficit, and arms sales.
"Clinton will be tougher than Bush," he continued. "But right now we just don't know what Clinton's foreign policy will be."
Although many urban Chinese nurse deep bitterness over the crackdown on political protests in 1989, they fear the uncertainty and tension that a more confrontational America could bring.
Peace, harmony, and togetherness are centuries-old values of Chinese culture and family life. Yet underlying the country's new zest for making money is an unease that the better life could be short-lived and turmoil once again just around the corner.
A glance at the outside world gives Chinese some cause for hope.