In the most awkward, politically charged moment of his state visit to China, President Clinton took part in welcoming ceremonies in Tiananmen Square this morning, somberly striding through the controversial event that officially opened his groundbreaking trip.
With Chinese President Jiang Zemin at his side, Clinton walked along a red carpet, listened to the thunderous volley of cannons firing salutes and reviewed a phalanx of bayonet-carrying Chinese troops.
The colorful event in the capital city represented a formal show of respect for China's power and an implicit recognition by the Clinton administration that--nine years after Chinese troops massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square--its Communist leadership has outlasted the efforts to ostracize it.
The dramatic moment came just hours after U.S. and Chinese negotiators reached agreement on a symbolic, albeit important, arrangement to no longer target each other's cities with nuclear missiles.
The accord was a badly needed diplomatic victory for Clinton, who managed to finally overcome Chinese insistence that the move be linked to a pledge to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons--a condition that would violate longstanding U.S. doctrine.
"It's important that whatever our past disagreements, China and the United States must go forward on the right side of history," Clinton said after the agreement was released. "Our dreams can only be recognized by nations whose citizens are both responsible and free. Mr. president, that is the future that the United States seeks to build with China, in partnership and in honest friendship."
In the 14-page list of this and other agreements released after the meeting, China also agreed to a second, more minor, commitment to study possible membership in an international body that monitors the spread of missile technology, formally known as the Missile Technology Control Regime.
In addition to these small steps, the two leaders issued joint statements dealing with the crisis in South Asia following Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests; the drive for a global ban on antipersonnel land mines; and the Biological Weapons Convention.
The leaders pledged to work together to prevent further nuclear escalation in South Asia and to "promote reconciliation and the peaceful resolution of differences between India and Pakistan."
Tensions in South Asia, Clinton and Jiang agreed, "are a source of deep and lasting concern to both of us."
The agreement also outlined future cooperation between China and the United States across a broad range of issues, including nuclear nonproliferation, environmental cooperation, health care and efforts to strengthen the Chinese judicial system.
On the volatile matter of human rights, the statement noted the two countries' "differences on human rights" while announcing that officials will hold a "candid dialogue" on the matter this year.
Emerging from their meeting, Clinton and Jiang engaged in an amicable if escalating jousting match on the subject of Tiananmen Square and freedom.
Clinton described Tiananmen as a "historic place" throughout Chinese history. But alluding to the bloody events of 1989, when "Chinese citizens of all ages raised their voices for democracy," Clinton declared that "for all of our agreements, we still disagree about the meaning of what happened then."
Standing next to Clinton, Jiang staunchly defended the brutal crackdown in the square, declaring: "Had the Chinese government not taken resolute measures, then we could not continue the stability that we are enjoying today."
Retorted Clinton, who last year told Jiang that China was "on the wrong side of history" when it came to personal liberty, "I'm trying to have a dialogue here that will enable both of us to move forward. . . . I believe that stability in the 21st century will require high levels of freedom."
Unlike the Tiananmen Square welcoming ceremony, this extraordinary exchange was carried live on Chinese television.
During today's ceremony, Clinton looked grim as he peered out over the very location where hundreds of thousands of Chinese demonstrators gathered in 1989 to demand democratic changes and an end to corruption. Those protests ended when the Chinese regime ordered the military assault.
The president said nothing during the ceremonies, which lasted about 15 minutes and took place in a plaza that is technically adjacent to the square but which blends into it and served as a base for the attacking soldiers in 1989. Administration officials have said Clinton plans to address questions of freedom and human rights at other locations during his trip.
Apparently unsure whether the American president might try to balance the controversial moment with some unscheduled comments, Chinese state television did not transmit the ceremonies live but began airing taped segments of the occasion shortly afterward.
Immediately after the hot, morning ceremony, Clinton and Jiang walked up the steps of the Great Hall of the People for the key one-on-one session of Clinton's nine-day visit.
Reports that Chinese officials had detained dissidents and even tried to block two Asian-American workers from hauling Clinton's luggage onto Air Force One in the ancient capital of Xian, which Clinton visited Thursday night and Friday, have deeply embarrassed the White House. The administration has staked a great deal on its policy of engaging China rather than isolating it.
Clinton has already been harshly criticized by human rights groups and by many in Congress for agreeing to go along with Chinese protocol, which calls for state visitors to be welcomed at the square. Reports over the past few days that Chinese authorities had detained several dissidents in the cities where Clinton will be visiting are certain to increase the decibel level of this criticism.
Chinese authorities have also blocked the Web sites of some human rights groups and news organizations in China, and just before Clinton's departure from Washington, they rescinded the Chinese visas of three Washington-based journalists for Radio Free Asia.
That such harassment of dissidents is routine in China has brought little comfort to the traveling party of U.S. dignitaries.
Clinton and his top aides seemed to be thrown off balance by the extent to which China's repression of political dissent has become an issue in the early days of the president's trip here.
These actions by the Chinese regime intensified the anxieties of Clinton and his aides that their policy of engagement with China will be subjected to even more political criticism at home.
Republican leaders have already excoriated Clinton's China policy in recent weeks, and the GOP is likely to launch new attacks after he returns.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry complained during Clinton's plane ride across the Pacific that no Republicans had been willing to join the presidential delegation to China.
The U.S. media's intense focus on human rights controversies during a visit that the White House has hoped will prove a triumphant moment of global statesmanship for the president has left Clinton's aides rattled and off balance.
At first, National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger on Friday said China's response to U.S. complaints has "not been satisfactory." But as questions persisted, he went on to condemn China's actions in much blunter terms.
"People are not debris to be swept up for a visitor," he said at a news conference in Xian. "I think China's human rights record is terrible. . . . I think there's been some progress in human rights, but it has been not nearly enough."
In rounding up those who might voice public dissent, Berger said, "the Chinese security apparatus is doing what comes naturally to them."
He said he was not surprised because the regime took similar steps during other visits to China by senior U.S. officials, such as the 1994 Beijing trip by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
"They [Chinese authorities] see a trip like this with a combination of . . . anticipation and some fear," Berger said. "But if China is going to make that next step into really being a nation whose practices are fully acceptable to the international community, this is not a step in that direction."
Among the concerns that arose Friday was the whereabouts of Bishop Julias Jia Zhiguo, the cleric of Zhengding in Hebei province near Beijing.
He was arrested in the last few days, according to the Cardinal Kung Foundation of Stamford, Conn., which monitors the underground Roman Catholic Church in China.
The foundation said in a statement that "before his arrest, Bishop Jia was notified by the Chinese . . . that he would be taken away during the visit of President Clinton to China."
To top off a combative day with Chinese officialdom, what McCurry termed an "overeager" Chinese security official tried to stop two Asian American White House valets as they tried to load Clinton's garment bags onto Air Force One as the aircraft was being prepared for departure Friday night from Xian.
McCurry said the official approached the two valets and began shouting, apparently arguing that they should not be allowed to board. After a two- to three-minute argument with U.S. officials, the valets got on the presidential plane, which then departed for Beijing.
Despite major U.S. efforts, there was no immediate evidence of an agreement on Tibet.
At a news conference after his meeting with Jiang, Clinton expressed regret about the lack of progress on Tibet.
As his senior aides protested the detentions of dissidents and negotiated key issues, the president visited the famed terra-cotta warriors, discovered in 1974 a few miles from Xian. He also dropped in on a nearby village that has cashed in on the tourism for the 2,000-year-old archeological wonders.
Clinton, with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, daughter Chelsea and mother-in-law Dorothy Rodham, spent Friday afternoon on a five-hour cultural extravaganza that included close inspection of the ruins--more than 1,000 of the estimated 3,000 terra-cotta soldiers, horses and chariots, ordered built by the Emperor Qin Shi Huang and buried near him to protect him and sustain his power after death.
White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who accompanied Clinton on the tour, spent $1,100 for a life-sized replica of a warrior.
"My wife will either like it or she's going to kill me," he said.
Bureau chiefs Henry Chu in Beijing and Rone Tempest in Hong Kong contributed to this report. To hear Times correspondents' audio reports from China on The Times' Web site, go to: http://www.latimes.com/china