Clinton, Jiang Spar Over Tibet, Tiananmen in Startling Debate


Even as they reached agreement on a variety of issues, President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin engaged Saturday in an unprecedented public debate on human rights, aired live to hundreds of millions of Chinese on national television, that revitalized what had begun as a problem-plagued summit.

“I think this has been quite an extraordinary day in the evolution of U.S.-China relations,” declared Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, Clinton’s national security advisor.

Speaking of the televised exchange, he added: “It would have been unthinkable for that to happen even five years ago, perhaps even yesterday.”


Ebullient Clinton administration officials immediately seized on the spectacle as evidence that their much maligned policy of engaging China is bearing fruit. But in another regard, the two leaders’ exchange could also be counted as a victory for White House critics who have accused Clinton of “kowtowing” to a recalcitrant Chinese regime.

The opposition pressure probably pushed the president into remarkably outspoken comments on a range of very sensitive issues, from Tibet to political dissent and religious freedoms.

The theme of religious freedom was very much in evidence today, as the president attended Sunday morning services with his family at Beijing’s largest Protestant church.

“We are a long way from home, but we felt very much at home with you here in this church,” Clinton told worshipers at the Chongwenmen Church, a Methodist Episcopal congregation that was founded in 1870, decades before China became a Communist society.

“I believe our faith calls upon us to seek unity with people across the world of different races and backgrounds and creeds,” said the president, who sat in the front pew with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, their daughter, Chelsea, and his mother-in-law, Dorothy Rodham.

The visit came after an especially charged Saturday, during which Clinton became the first president to appear in Tiananmen Square since the bloody army crackdown there in 1989. That very awkward moment was then followed by an extraordinary news conference that officials did not even know would be televised until less than two hours before it began in the ornate Western Hall of the Great Hall of the people.

The news conference got off to a tense start, particularly after Clinton launched into a series of direct criticisms of Chinese human rights practices. Chinese protocol generally frowns on such broadsides by visitors and views them as meddling in China’s internal affairs.

Speaking, for instance, against the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed, Clinton said: “I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong.”

The president, who also complained about the detention of a handful of dissidents by Chinese officials at the start of his nine-day visit, said that “for all of our agreements, we still disagree about the meaning of what happened” in 1989.

Jiang fired back that the crackdown was justified, reflecting a wide gulf between Washington and Beijing.

“Had the Chinese government not taken the resolute measures, then we could not have enjoyed the stability that we are enjoying today,” Jiang asserted.

But after a few such exchanges, the tension lifted, mostly because Jiang lightened the atmosphere with a few modest witticisms and, on several occasions, actually invited Clinton to fire his best shot. By the end of the event, which lasted an hour and 10 minutes, things were relaxed enough for Clinton to suggest that Jiang and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan religious leader, get together for a friendly chat to resolve their differences.

“I have spent time with the Dalai Lama,” Clinton said. “I believe him to be an honest man, and I believe if he had a conversation with President Jiang, they would like each other very much.”

This was followed by nervous titters from the Chinese side and broad smiles from the American delegation, which by this point must have realized that the once-precarious summit may have been saved.

Later Saturday night, the president and other senior American officials accompanying him on the trip participated in a formal state dinner in the Great Hall and exchanged toasts.

Clinton, buoyed by the extraordinary debate earlier in the day, even rose to gleefully direct the uniformed band of the People’s Liberation Army.

And today, the Clintons, briefly enjoying the role of tourists, looked forward to sightseeing at Beijing’s most famous attractions, including the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, before attending a private dinner hosted by Jiang.

Significance of Debate

The significance of Saturday’s debate was not simply that it was held, but that it was broadcast live to the world’s most populous country, a place long accustomed to censorship in political discourse.

In this regard, it was unlike any other summit, even between longtime allies.

Instead of debating their differences in cloistered privacy, Clinton and his Chinese counterpart conducted an extraordinarily public summit.

Never in history has an American president, or for that matter any American, had so much unadulterated exposure before the Chinese public. The potential Chinese television audience is believed to be more than 800 million, more than three times the population of the United States.

Because the news conference was aired with no advance announcement by China Central Television at noon Beijing time, the actual audience was probably considerably smaller. However, the lunch hour is a time when many Chinese watch the news.

The event was also carried live on China Radio International and other national radio networks.

Western diplomats here reported private car and taxi drivers pulling to the side of the road to listen.

It was, Berger said, “as far as we know, the first time a press conference held by a foreign leader has been broadcast live. It certainly was the most extensive public discussion by far between a Chinese leader and an American leader on human rights.”

Despite the novelty of the live broadcast, Clinton critics at home denounced it.

The debate “represented a rehashing of old promises not kept,” complained U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), a major critic of Clinton’s China policy from within his party.

She said Clinton’s remarks played down alleged human rights violations by China by placing the Tiananmen incident “in the past instead of [as] a current nightmare for the Chinese people.”

Pelosi also was critical of Clinton’s plans to worship today at China’s largest Protestant church. Clinton aides have depicted the church visit as a way to bring attention to another area of difference between the U.S. and China: the lack of religious freedom in China.

“At a state-sanctioned church, he will give credit to the regime that there is religious freedom in China,” Pelosi said.

Republican Caution

In the Republicans’ weekly radio address, Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who led an investigation into alleged covert Chinese contributions to the Democratic Party, pointed to China’s human rights record and involvement in weapons proliferation and said the United States cannot bank on the goodwill of the Asian nation.

“Our welfare is dependent upon our own strength and that of our proven allies,” Thompson said, adding that the president should make clear that the U.S. will not put trade above national security interests.

In his own weekly radio address, Clinton said that U.S. relations with China are “essential to a peaceful, stable and prosperous world in the next century.” China, he said, has made some progress in human rights over the past year, “though still far from enough.”

“In dealing with China, we must stay true to a course that is both principled and pragmatic,” the president said. “We must continue to expand our areas of cooperation even as we deal directly with our differences.”

In a 14-page statement released before the news conference, the two countries announced agreement on a host of issues, including promises to restrict the spread of chemical and biological weapons and anti-personnel land mines, defuse nuclear tensions in South Asia, cooperate on environmental problems and strengthen China’s legal system. And they reached accord on what had been expected to be the summit’s highlight--a highly symbolic deal to “de-target” nuclear missiles aimed at each other.

During the televised event, Clinton and Jiang dwelt more explicitly on subjects--Tibet, political dissent and the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown--generally considered taboo in public discourse here.

Until recently, in fact, Chinese referred to the “June 4th” Tiananmen massacre only in lowered voices and whispered tones.

For his part, Clinton used the forum to voice clearly American objections to the brutal Chinese army actions that killed civilians.

Searing memories of Tiananmen have continued to prompt domestic U.S. animosity, fueling pressure that has complicated Clinton’s policy of engaging China.

Perhaps more important, however, was the fact that the Chinese leader directly engaged Clinton on this and other issues.

On one level, the candid discussion of Tiananmen signaled to the Chinese that the issue has now entered the sphere of public debate.

In the long term, this could be a step toward the long-anticipated revision of the official verdict on Tiananmen, which is now described as a “counterrevolutionary” rebellion.

Senior Chinese officials seated in the front rows of the ornate Western Hall of the Great Hall of the People, where the news conference took place, appeared shocked by the candor and equanimity of their leader.

However, the remarkably open debate before the world’s largest television audience indicated Jiang’s confidence in his own position at the top of the country’s leadership.

In this regard, the tortuously long succession process to replace the late “paramount leader,” Deng Xiaoping, who died in February 1997, appears to have reached another milestone, with Jiang clearly at the helm.

Jiang, who studied American democratic institutions at a missionary school in Yangzhou, his hometown in Jiangsu province, and who can still recite the American Bill of Rights, appeared to enjoy the give-and-take.

Consistently throughout the news conference, he asked Clinton if he had anything to add on human rights and other issues.

At one point, after a very frank discussion of Tibet, Jiang even slipped into English, leaning toward Clinton and saying: “And I think that is democracy.”

The news conference was only the second to be aired live on national television here. The first was when newly appointed Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji talked to domestic and foreign reporters in February.

But the precedent for Saturday’s event can be traced back to Jiang’s visit to Washington last fall, when the two leaders engaged in a similar, though less sweeping, debate in the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House.

Several viewers Saturday said they were impressed by the American president, who managed to make his strong objections to Chinese human rights practices without appearing to harangue the leadership. But many appeared to be equally impressed by Jiang’s ability to articulate China’s differences with the U.S., as well by the novelty of witnessing such a forthright debate on television.

“There was such a big gap in the understanding of human rights between the United States and China, which I didn’t realize,” said a 74-year-old retired engineer who identified himself as Hao.

Times staff writers Henry Chu and Tyler Marshall contributed to this story.


In Their Own Words

On the nature of Chinese and American political systems

Clinton: “Our country was founded by people who felt they were abused by royal powers . . . . And they understood clearly; that any system, because human beings are imperfect, any system can be abused. So the question for all societies going forward into the 21st century is, which is the better gamble? If you have a lot of personal freedom, some people may abuse it. But if you are so afraid of personal freedom because of the abuse that you limit people’s freedom too much, then you pay, I believe, an even greater price in a world where the whole economy is based on ideas and information and exchange and debate.”

Jiang: “China is a socialist country in which its people are masters of the nation. The Chinese people can elect their own representatives to the people’s congresses through direct or indirect means, and they can fully express their views and exercise their political rights.”


On Tiananmen Square

Clinton: “Nine years ago, Chinese citizens of all ages raised their voices for democracy.

For all of our agreements, we still disagree about the meaning of what happened then. I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong. I believe, and the American people believe, that freedom of speech, association and religion are, as recognized by U.N. Charter, the right of people everywhere and should be protected by their governments.

It is important that, whatever our disagreements over past action, China and the United States must go forward on the right side of history for the future sake of the world.”

Jiang: “With regard to the political disturbances in 1989, the Chinese people have long drawn a historical conclusion . . . . I have stated our position that, with regard to the political disturbances in 1989, had the Chinese government not taken the resolute measures, then we could not have enjoyed the stability that we are enjoying today.”


On Tibet and religious freedom

Clinton: “You have to let me say one thing about the Dalai Lama. First, I agree that Tibet is a part of China, an autonomous region of China. And I can understand why the acknowledgment of that would be a precondition of dialogue with the Dalai Lama. But I also believe that there are many, many Tibetans who still revere the Dalai Lama and view him as their spiritual leader . . . .

And let me say something that will perhaps be unpopular with everyone. I have spent time with the Dalai Lama. I believe him to be an honest man, and I believe if he had a conversation with President Jiang, they would like each other very much.”

Jiang: “I’d like to say a few words on [the] Dalai Lama. President Clinton is also interested in the question, in Dalai Lama. Actually, since the Dalai Lama left in 1959, earthshaking changes have taken place in Tibet. First, the system of theocracy has forever become bygones. . . . The more than 1 million serfs under the rule of the Dalai Lama were liberated. . . .

Finally, I want to emphasize that, according to China’s Constitution, the freedom of religious belief in Tibet, and also throughout China, is protected. But as the president of the People’s Republic of China and as a . . . member of the Communist Party, I myself am an atheist. But this will by no means affect my respect for the religious freedom in Tibet.”


On dissidents

Clinton: “I actually made a couple of specific and practical suggestions about how we might take our dialogue further . . . .

There are some people who are incarcerated now for offenses no longer on the books in China . . . . The question then arises, is there some way that these people might be released? Is there some procedure through which we could move? There are some people imprisoned for nonviolent activities in June of 1989. Is there something that could be done there?”

Jiang: “Concerning [a reporter’s question about] 2,000 dissidents, I think in China we have our laws. And in China’s Constitution, it is clearly stipulated that the Chinese citizens have the freedom of speech, but any lawbreaking activities must be dealt with according to law. I think this is true in any country of rule of law. And I think China’s judicial departments will deal with the matter according to law.”