Chinese leader Jiang Zemin strides down a sandy beach and into Hawaii's surf. After bobbing in the waves for some time, the corpulent septuagenarian rejoins his entourage, smiling broadly. "I swam for one hour!" he declares to the cameras of the official Chinese media positioned nearby.
For Chinese, a long swim by the supreme leader is often a telling event. In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong made a famous plunge into the Yangtze River to prove his vigor before unleashing his radical Cultural Revolution. And in 1984, Deng Xiaoping took a dip in the Bohai Sea on the eve of launching a new wave of economic reform. Mr. Jiang, who also did a Hawaiian hula dance and is known to dye his hair black, clearly sought to begin his Oct. 27 to Nov. 2 visit to the United States with a splashy verve.
In America, Jiang's swim made hardly a ripple.
Indeed, much of the carefully staged symbolism of his visit - from the wreath-laying at Pearl Harbor to wearing a tricorn hat in Colonial Williamsburg, Va. - seemed more like a tired statement on Chinese propaganda than a genuine effort to introduce Jiang to the US public.
In contrast, the unscripted, unrehearsed episodes of Jiang's trip - from being grilling over human rights by the White House press corps to the ubiquitous taunts of protesters - offered some of the best insights into the mind of the Soviet-trained Chinese technocrat and possibly also taught Jiang a few things about himself.
Win some, lose some
Outside the ANA Hotel on "M" Street in northwest Washington last Thursday, a blond man in a white satin kung-fu outfit stands waving a large Tibetan flag, smiling at passersby.
Inside, Jiang is seated at the head table with his old friend, China consultant and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Between bites of filet mignon, the two men carry on an animated chat, with Jiang occasionally patting Mr. Kissinger's arm for emphasis. Then, in ponderous tones, Kissinger introduces Jiang as a "an explorer in a new bilateral relationship."
Members of the Asia Society, the National Council on US-China Relations, and other sympathetic groups applaud warmly as Jiang takes the podium. Jiang, who likes to recite Shakespeare and play the piano, peppers his speeches with Chinese sayings, but he rarely glances up through his thick-rimmed black glasses as he reads with a heavy accent.
The audience perks up as he reaches a section on human rights. "Without democracy, there can be no modernization," reads the leader of the world's last major Communist Party, ironically taking an idea championed by jailed Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng. "Human rights are of universal significance," he declares a few paragraphs later, also stating that economic rights are inseparable from political rights.
Immediately, the comments spark speculation among China watchers in the audience that Jiang is moving toward political moderation, especially since he succeeded in September to bring about the early retirement of his main political rival, the more progressive legislative chief Qiao Shi.
Moments later, however, Jiang reverts to standard hard-line dogma on Tibet. China's "liberation" of Tibet was much like the freeing in America of black slaves, he says. He then claims a political campaign in Tibet in 1959, which both Chinese and American scholars have documented as excessively violent, involved the "peaceful" emancipation of some 1 million serfs and slaves. Today, he asserts, Tibetans live in "happiness and contentment."
A crowd of students, faculty, Chinese-American businessmen, and local officials packs the main auditorium of Drexel University in Philadelphia, with people fanning themselves and craning their necks to see Jiang. The stage is decorated with a large blue-and-gold dragon and the Chinese characters for Drexel.
Despite a small group of religious and political protesters outside, including one young man holding a sign saying "Don't Shoot Me, Jiang Zemin," the crowd seems friendly. After all, this is the alma mater of Jiang's son, Jiang Mianheng, who graduated in 1991.
Businessman Andrew Yau, president of the Greater Philadelphia Overseas Chinese Association, has a representative view. "In 1989, the students in Tiananmen were in too much of a hurry to change the system," he says. "It's like riding a motorcycle. You can't make a 90-degree turn unless you go slow."
Here, unlike in Virginia and New York, where he was snubbed by state leaders, Jiang is greeted enthusiastically as an honored guest by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. Seemingly thrilled to be among friends, Jiang makes a few remarks in Chinese and then is transformed into a proud father, offering a sentimental thank you to his son's teachers in halting, heavily accented English.
"I have the honor of having a son who have the PhD here - but I have only got a bachelor's degree," Jiang quips.
When officials name him an honorary member of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team and hand him a red-and-white jersey with "Jiang" on the front, the president seems genuinely delighted. He jumps up to take the microphone. "My grandson also lived at this university for three years," he says. "He liked football very much!"
Beyond the gates of Drexel, though, it is back to the real world. At his next stop, Independence Hall, hundreds of chanting protesters lined the streets, forcing Jiang to enter the back door and drop his plans to see the Liberty Bell.
'China's market is open to you'
It is 9:29 a.m. on Halloween, and Jiang, wearing a dark gray suit and flanked by American and Chinese flags, is peering down from a marble balcony onto the busy trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. After a brief countdown, Jiang reaches over and pushes the button to ring the opening bell. "I hope the market will go up!" he says, jutting his thumb in the air.
A few traders offer the president a weak round of applause. Many simply ignore him. The Dow Jones industrial average, however, does rise several points in the first few minutes of trading.
Why the muted response?
"We have a conscience. Why should we let him come?" asks one young trader in a green jacket as he steps out onto a Wall Street corner, citing concern over human rights. But others disagreed. "Most people here see China as a place where we can expand our business," says broker Bob Steiner.
Jiang, who was presented with a traditional statue of a bull pushing over a bear, stresses in a breakfast with leading financial magnates that China wants to cooperate with the New York Stock Exchange as China develops its own financial markets, says Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, International, which managed the listing of China telecommunications on the exchange last month.
Afterward, Jiang puts on his electrical-engineer hat and makes visits to see state-of-the-art microchips and other electronic devices at IBM, AT&T, and Lucent Technologies, a high-tech tour that he continued yesterday at the Los Angeles-based satellite manufacturer Hughes.
More than 100 guests, including the chiefs of several blue-chip companies such as Eastman Kodak, Boeing, and General Motors, attended a dinner at the Starlight Room of Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria Hotel for Jiang Friday night. "China's market is open to you!" Jiang says in English. Criticizing US preconditions for China's entry to the World Trade Organization as "unfair," he urges the business community, his most loyal lobby, to "make new contributions" to closer US-China ties.
Into a lion's den
Hundreds of young activists stand on the cobblestone sidewalk across the street from the cavernous Sanders Theatre at Harvard University Saturday, chanting slogans. Today, in a sign of Boston's intensely politicized student population, Tibet supporters, Chinese pro-democracy groups, and Taiwan independence protesters are joined by a group of Chinese students who are welcoming Jiang. Pinned to their shirts are plastic cards saying "Greater Boston Area Welcoming Committee for President Jiang Zemin."
In a TV talk before Jiang's arrival, Kissinger predicted that Jiang would "live to regret" his visit to Harvard, once considered so liberal it was called 'the Kremlin on the Charles [River].' "
"He's come into the lion's den, and he knew it was a lion's den," says Robert Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College. Simply having survived the trip without a major gaffe will bolster Jiang's power at home, Dr. Ross predicts. "Now he can go back and say, 'I handled the American press.' "
Even at Harvard, where Jiang anticipated harsh criticism, he spontaneously offers to take unscreened questions from an audience of students, scholars, and journalists. "Inevitably, there are shortfallings and mistakes in our work, but we strive constantly to improve," he says in response to a question about why he refuses to have an open dialogue with the Chinese people. The questioner also asked about the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, but Jiang declines to comment.
On Tibet, Jiang repeats China's demand that the Dalai Lama, considered by most Tibetans to be their spiritual and political leader, give up his "separatist" activities as a precondition for negotiations with Beijing. He says it is "very regrettable" that the Dalai Lama has not done so.