A 19th-century Daumier caricature shows the American ambassador to China prostrate before a nose-thumbing Chinese emperor. Some recent commentary asserts that President Clinton is abjectly repeating that famous kowtow as he meets his Chinese hosts.
As if to counteract that spin from opponents, the president's handlers are creating an imperial spin of their own by surrounding him with a huge traveling retinue. When he looks over the massed ranks of the famed terra-cotta warriors in Xian he may feel he's seeing his own entourage in a mirror.
Neither spin is accurate.
Mr. Clinton is neither a kowtowing supplicant nor a visiting emperor. Much of his trip, like those of previous US presidents, will serve as education for the American people - a drop-in tour of how much entrepreneurial China has progressed in recent years, plus photogenic shots of the Great Wall, over-vast Tiananmen Square, and the mystic mountains of Guilin. It is also an opportunity to get out of Washington and be grandly presidential.
Add to this the now obligatory moment when Clinton will address the Chinese people on democracy and citizens' rights.
All this will be the public show, with TV cams awhir. When the media are barred, the president and his advisers will tackle the serious business of pressing President Jiang and Prime Minister Zhou to open markets further to US exports. That would help encourage US investors to return to Asia. And that, in turn, would help provide jobs for Chinese millions losing state and Army jobs.
Clinton will argue that further freeing of political prisoners, and the spread of democratic elections from the village to the provincial level, will help make his job of selling Congress on trade and technology easier in future.
Beyond that, he ought to vigorously urge four things: (1) Regular defense ministers' meetings to examine the hard facts of long-range weapons proliferation and ways to curb it. (2) A renewed quiet pledge by Beijing not to use force over Taiwan. The US should argue that long-run reforms on the mainland are Beijing's best way to woo Taiwan. (3) That Chinese leaders rid themselves of the Tibet albatross by exploring the Dalai Lama's statement that Tibetans seek only cultural and political autonomy, not independence. (4) That China increase its participation in Asian regional meetings.
That would add lots of practical substance to the imperial show.