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China Trip Seen Aiding Both Clinton and Jiang

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the American president, summits between the U.S. and other world powers have never been mere matters of foreign policy: How they play at home has been as important as how they play abroad.

For the reigning Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, that axiom has also held true this week here in the world’s most populous nation, where such showcases of diplomacy seldom have as many domestic political implications as the nine-day tour by President Clinton that ended in Hong Kong on Friday.

Out of the summit--the first visit to China by a U.S. president since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre--Jiang has emerged more clearly than ever as China’s No. 1 leader in the post-Deng Xiaoping era and, in the eyes of many citizens, as a statesman on an equal footing with the leader of the free world.

Cementing Jiang’s ascendancy was the summit’s most enduring image: the two presidents squaring off on live TV before potentially hundreds of millions of viewers inside and outside China.

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Both audiences, domestic and international, got the message that this was a Chinese leader confident of his position at the top.

“Such high-visibility, prestige-enhancing exposure to the Chinese people has arguably done much to enhance Jiang’s image within China as a ‘worthy successor’ to Deng,” UCLA political scientist Richard Baum said.

Before the death last year of “paramount leader” Deng, “Jiang was largely perceived as a bland, colorless technocrat. Now he is being described as ‘statesmanlike’ and ‘leaderly,’ ” Baum said.

The make-over has been underway for months with the advice of public relations consultants--a first for a Chinese leader--and culminated in last week’s summit. But beneath the image lies a deeper reality about Jiang’s approach to the U.S. and his growing stature at home, a reality that is likely to have important consequences for what will arguably be the most crucial international relationship of the new millennium.

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More than any Chinese leader in the last quarter of a century, Jiang appears willing to stake his foreign policy agenda--and perhaps his reputation in Chinese history--on warmer, stronger ties with the U.S., beyond the uneasy detente that has prevailed for decades.

Where Mao Tse-tung opened the door to communication with the U.S. during Richard Nixon’s path-breaking 1972 visit, Jiang has flung it even wider, pressing for closer collaboration on issues ranging from the nuclear arms race in South Asia to the world economy.

It is a risky venture in the face of criticism from Communist hard-liners, who still wield considerable influence here and view the United States with deep suspicion. But by tightening his grip on power with performances like the one this past week, Jiang, 71, is more likely to see his agenda succeed.

“It does seem clear that Jiang is placing a high priority on building a cooperative relationship with the United States,” said Harry Harding, a veteran China-watcher and dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. “Like Clinton, he faces domestic critics who believe that a conflict between the U.S. and China, or at least a strategic rivalry, is inevitable.

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“But probably even more than Clinton, he also has a domestic constituency that actively favors a more cooperative relationship.”

Chinese officials who advocate working with Washington, like Jiang, deem that course the wisest one to enable China to get what it wants, from admission to the World Trade Organization on favorable terms to the upper hand in dealing with Taiwan, one of the stickiest problems bedeviling Sino-U.S. relations.

With respect to this concept of “engagement,” Jiang is not much different from Clinton. Each feels that cooperating with the other is the best way to reach his own ends.

Indeed, Clinton came through for the Beijing regime this week by outlining--in more explicit terms than any president before him--the White House’s support for Chinese reunification and its opposition to Taiwanese independence.

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That statement represented a tangible achievement that Jiang can tout in China, where many in the leadership and on the streets feel passionately about the issue.

It was the latest step in Jiang’s campaign to build up his standing within the Chinese elite and among the populace at large. Since Deng’s death, he has continually cultivated his place “at the core” of the Communist leadership, as the saying now goes in all official references to his position.

Experts point to several important stages during the past year and a half in Jiang’s consolidation of power: his prominent role at Deng’s funeral, the smooth hand-over of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, a reshuffle of top officials and his trip to the U.S. last fall.

But last week’s summit provided an opportunity for some of the most overt attempts yet by Jiang to draw a clear line of succession down from Mao, through Deng, to himself.

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In a laudatory TV documentary aired nationwide a few days before Clinton arrived, Jiang was shown swimming off the coast of Hawaii during his U.S. tour last fall. A voice-over directly compared his dip to similar aquatic exploits by Deng and Mao, who was photographed swimming in the Yangtze River to demonstrate the health of his body and of his regime.

Likewise, a front-page spread in some editions of the official People’s Daily, commemorating the newspaper’s 50th anniversary a week before the summit, featured large photographs of Mao reading the Communist Party mouthpiece, Deng “showing concern” for the paper and Jiang scanning a copy.

UCLA’s Baum said of Jiang, “He has been engaged in a well-choreographed campaign to enhance his domestic political stature within China since the death of his benefactor, Deng"--who plucked Jiang from relative obscurity as Shanghai’s mayor to head the central government after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

But few U.S.-based analysts believe that Jiang is ready to assume the mantle of new “paramount leader.” While Jiang has had to work hard to shore up his power base, freezing out rivals and piling up titles--chairman of the Central Military Commission, for example--Deng was the undisputed ruler of all, though his only formal title was “most honorary president” of a national bridge-playing association.

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Even the decision to broadcast last Saturday’s news conference, live and unedited on state-run TV, may have been a sign of both strength and weakness: strength that Jiang made it happen, weakness that he gave in to pressure from Washington and may have had to consult the Politburo to do so.

“He still needs the support of others in the leadership to move,” a senior Clinton administration official said.

“Access to the media--and through them, the Chinese people--was Clinton’s top request of the Chinese,” Harding said. “If Jiang wanted to have the visit go well, and if he wanted to stabilize Sino-American relations, he had to accede to it. . . .

“This is not to say that Jiang is a weak leader, because I don’t think he is,” Harding said. “It’s just to say that the decision to give Clinton access to the media is not, in itself, conclusive evidence of strength.”

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Still, back in Washington, the White House is eager to build up Jiang as a leader with whom it can do business.

Similarly, here in China, Jiang will try to capitalize on his association this week with Clinton, who charmed the Chinese people through unprecedented access over the airwaves.

Times staff writer Jim Mann contributed to this report.


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