Clinton Tries to Breach Great Wall of US Doubt
Critics of President Clinton's China policy say it will take more than nine days to change opinions.
WASHINGTON — In his trip to China, President Clinton wants to show Americans the big picture. Talking with villagers, praying with fellow Christians, exchanging views with students and business leaders - his strategy has been to portray a China that's broader than the image many Americans retain from the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
It may be too early to tell whether his approach is changing Americans' views, which, according to a variety of June polls, are mostly negative or neutral to China.
But it is unlikely that the president's trip, even with unexpected live broadcasts of his remarks, will do much to sway the opinions of a key group - his China critics in Washington. These are people who can create hurdles for the president's China policy, one being the potential denial of most favored nation (MFN) trade status for China later this summer. Mr. Clinton's critics - lawmakers, dissidents and some China watchers - are much more interested in the proliferation than in the panorama the president is showing.
Administration officials gushed over the opportunity Clinton had to reach Chinese viewers in a live television broadcast Saturday, and again in a broadcast with students Monday. But it will take more than uncensored air time to win over those unhappy with the administration's policy.
The first broadcast, in which the president, at a joint press conference with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, criticized China's human rights policy and also called for a dialogue on Tibet between Jiang and the Dalai Lama, was "one flower in what has otherwise been a winter" in America's China policy, says Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council. Mr. Bauer contends that the president is following a "one dimensional" policy driven by America's commercial interests in China.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R) of Arizona, a member of the House International Relations subcommittee on Asia, was a bit more generous. A supporter of MFN in the past, he said the broadcast of Clinton's press conference with Jiang was "a healthy step in the right direction," but the summit has been "just talk, and talk is cheap."
Representative Salmon says what's needed are commitments from China to release political prisoners, drop trade barriers, and begin talks on Tibet. Without those, MFN approval is "dicey" he said.
Other critics of White House China policy, including lawmakers investigating illegal Chinese donations to the Democratic Party and possible security violations from US satellite exports to China, also focused on the need for concrete results. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, one of the president's harshest critics on China, summed up the trip so far with "the three R's": rhetoric, rehash, and no results.
While painting a diverse picture of China has been one aim of the president, so has mixing with the people - one of the things he does best and clearly enjoys.
Monday's address and exchange with Beijing University students and faculty had the president again extolling human liberties. "We are convinced that certain rights are universal," the president said, "the right to be treated with dignity, the right to give voice to their opinions, to choose their own leaders, to associate with whom they wish, to worship or not freely." In response to a question on what Clinton would do if there were protests of his visit, the president said he would attempt to meet with one or two so they could speak their mind.
Listen and learn
The message was the importance of listening. Clinton summed up his Q&A at the prestigious university by saying the questions from the audience, some of which criticized US security policy, were "far more important than my speech - I only learn things when I'm listening."
Michel Oksenberg a China scholar at Stanford (Calif.) University, is pleased with the trip. The president "has tried to have contact with the Chinese people and that's where his greatest success has been."
Mr. Oksenberg is less concerned about the president's critics, saying that some of them are simply anti-Clinton and using his trip as "a tool against the president." The summit, he asserts, has built momentum and the broadcasts, "make a lot of the charges of critics less credible."
Of greater concern to Oksenberg and other China watchers is the possibility that Americans might get too rosy a picture of China from this summit. Americans, these experts say, should be aware of pressures that could lead to unrest. If that were to happen, it could drastically change US relations with that country.