Jiang’s Journey: Mere Symbolism Won’t Do

Times columnist Tom Plate is also a member of the UCLA faculty. E-mail:

The U.S. state visit by China’s Jiang Zemin, expected to take place at the end of October, could prove to be as memorable a public event as the 1979 get-together between Deng Xiaoping and President Jimmy Carter. Deng went to cities from Atlanta to Seattle and charmingly donned a cowboy hat to wave to the crowds. There was not even an official communique from the visit, but he returned to his backward China determined to start reducing the debilitating rigidities of his country’s economic system. Deng was then only a vice premier, though he was emerging as China’s paramount leader; today, though Jiang may have less absolute power than Deng had at his peak, he is, as both China’s head of state and head of the Communist Party, the first Chinese leader with both of these significant titles to garner a U.S. state visit.

This historic opportunity notwithstanding, I’m uneasy about the Jiang summit; China’s current leadership may not be ready for this. It’s worth noting that 1997 has already been a full year for China, with the long-expected but cathartic death of Deng, the historic handover of Hong Kong and the grueling upcoming party congress. Maybe adding Jiang’s visit to the 1997 calendar is just asking too much.

On Monday, as Beijing was gearing up for the critical party congress later this month (they occur only every five years), Foreign Minister Qian Qichen took time out to speak to The Times. With almost a decade on the job, the internationally respected Qian is the ruling elite’s most cosmopolitan thinker. Even so, after listening to him for almost an hour, I came away worrying that China may be underestimating the expectations that this Sino-U.S. summit will generate in the West, especially on controversial issues like human rights. “China does not expect to resolve any specific problem or issue during this state visit,” said Qian.

Perhaps he was only using the standard negotiating ploy of keeping expectations to a minimum. But despite repeated questioning, he offered little optimism that China would make substantial concessions on human rights or on the daunting U.S.-China trade deficit, though he did say he hopes for progress on nuclear nonproliferation: “It is quite natural for the U.S. executive branch, the U.S. Congress and the U.S. media to have some differences in views [with us about] that state visit,” Qian commented, “but to date the U.S. Congress and the U.S. media have not voiced open opposition to the visit but raised certain conditions [in an effort to] . . . apply influence on China during that visit.” I suggested to the foreign minister that at such a prominent summit, expectations are always high and that they will be dashed if the exercise produces little more than some boring communique and photo op. Qian chuckled, then countered that perhaps neither China nor President Clinton can come out a winner from the meeting: “If, for example, as a result of the visit, the economic and trade relations of the two countries are greatly promoted, then maybe the U.S. media and Congress will complain that the U.S. president is only good at doing business! .J.J. This would also hurt the relationship!”


So many serious problems continue to bedevil this relationship. Beijing sincerely feels that America disrespects the one-China principle when it plays unilateral footsie with Taiwan. The foreign minister also expressed pique over the proposed expansion of the Japan-U.S. military-security agreement, a development which he claims distresses almost everyone in Asia. And, denying that Beijing ships biological, nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction of any kind to anybody, he pretty much dismissed Washington’s complaints about China’s controversial relationships with the likes of Pakistan and Iran.

Does America more need China as a friend, he suddenly mused, or as an enemy? Waxing philosophical, Qian noted that in the second half of the 20th century, “the world witnessed a Cold War which lasted more than four decades, and the Cold War was mainly characterized by military blocs and an arms race.” Qian fears that the world harbors a nostalgia for the simplifying values of wartime, whether hot or cold. “Which country does the U.S. regard as its enemy? [Some in America say] China is a threat; I believe that China will not be an enemy or a threat .J.J. but it will be very dangerous if somebody tries to create an enemy where there is actually no enemy. .J.J. If one insists on creating such an enemy, that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. .J.J. That created enemy will become a true enemy.”

That’s exactly why, to maintain bilateral momentum, the October summit must produce serious and substantive agreements that reflect good-faith bargaining as well as mutual understanding and a willingness to compromise. A hint of long-term changes in the bilateral relationship will not be enough to assure the world that the momentum for the reform in China, begun by Deng in 1979, is still really on track. Sure, the summit should go ahead, but if this visit produces little more than an updated version of the cowboy hat trick for the political paparazzi, China’s leaders may run the risk of setting back the bilateral relationship rather than advancing it. I hope this doesn’t happen, obviously, but this possibility needs to be addressed now while there is still time to do something about it.