Like the 1985 tour of Deng Xiaoping, like the 1959 tour of Nikita Khrushchev, a visit across the great ideological divide involves a lot of symbol and ceremony. Chinese President Jiang Zemin will be treated to some American institutions, such as Independence Hall and the New York Stock Exchange, and also to some American customs, such as human rights protests.
But there will also be intricate negotiations at next week's summit. In preparation, officials in the foothills have been journeying between Washington and Beijing, to make sure that agreements - and disagreements - are pre-cooked and produce no unpleasant surprises.
I have been given to understand that the idea of an all-embracing joint declaration has been given up. Instead, subcommittees have dealt with nine "baskets" of issues. These involve such relatively uncontroversial matters as a maritime agreement on incidents at sea and cooperation against terrorism. And they involve disputed matters like trade balances and nuclear proliferation.
Unresolved at this writing is how to define the strategic relationship between the countries. Beijing would like to proclaim a "strategic partnership" like that enjoyed by Japan. American negotiators have been willing to go only as far as defining "strategic cooperation," short of a "partnership."
The touchiest issue is Taiwan, which precipitated a crisis in 1995 when Taiwan's president was admitted to the US. Concerned about Taiwan's effort to achieve creeping international acknowledgement of its status, mainland China wants a statement renewing the US's commitment to the "one China" policy.
Negotiators call the issue the question of the "Fourth Communiqu." The Nixon-Chou En-lai Shanghai Communiqu of 1972 set forth the "one China" principle. In 1978, President Carter formally recognized Beijing and withdrew formal recognition from Taiwan. In 1982, President Reagan reiterated the policy and agreed to limit arms sales to Taiwan - a promise Beijing claims has not been kept.
So now Beijing wants President Clinton to say it all over again, with feeling. An administration official involved in the heated negotiations told me, "There will be no fourth Taiwan Communiqu." And, presumably, President Jiang knows it.
In an interview with the Washington Post, the Chinese leader asked how Americans could fight a Civil War for their own unification and not accept the desire of 1.2 billion Chinese for unity.
By agreeing in advance on their disagreements, the Sherpas in the foothills hope to avoid unpleasantness at the summit.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.