President Clinton told students at China's leading university today that "certain rights are universal," challenging directly the argument often made by the country's top leaders that human rights and freedom mean different things in Asia than they do in the United States.
In a morning speech and a question-and-answer session at Beijing University, the president continued the efforts he began over the weekend to give Chinese audiences directly America's views about individual rights and freedoms.
"We do not seek to impose our vision on others," the president said. "But we are convinced that certain rights are universal . . . that, as one of the heroes of our independence, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in his last letter 172 years ago, 'All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.'
"I believe that everywhere, people aspire to be treated with dignity; to give voice to their opinions; to choose their own leaders; to associate with whom they wish; to worship how, when and where they want," Clinton continued. "These are not American rights or European rights or developed world rights. They are birthrights of people everywhere."
For their part, the Chinese students asked Clinton some skeptical questions, challenging him to explain America's support for Taiwan, its recently widened alliance with Japan and what one student described as America's ignorance about China.
"Maybe they [Americans] are only seeing China through several movies describing the Cultural Revolution or rural life," a young woman said. Clinton answered that he hoped his current visit to China will help Americans get "a full and balanced picture" of the nation.
At one point, Clinton appeared to challenge, very obliquely, the way Chinese leaders have put down political demonstrations. He said that if there were demonstrations against him: "I would ask my host if they minded if I would go over and talk to them, or . . . if one or two people from the group of demonstrators could be brought to see me and they could say what is on their minds, and I could answer."
The president's speech was broadcast live on Chinese television. At one point, the telecast was interrupted for a few seconds after Clinton said he was about to deviate from his prepared remarks. But the television came on live again after he began to talk extemporaneously about the environment.
Aides had billed Clinton's appearance before students and staff at the nation's premier institution of higher learning as the main speech of the presidential visit, one expected to dwell extensively on the importance of human rights and democratic values.
Initially, the speech was seen as the best opportunity for Clinton to counterbalance criticism in the United States for his decision to bow to Chinese protocol and agree to be welcomed Saturday in Tiananmen Square, where nine years ago hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pro-democracy protesters were slain.
Clinton told his university audience that in the 21st century, true freedom "must mean more than economic opportunity. In America, we believe that freedom itself is indivisible. . . . We believe, and our experience demonstrates, that freedom strengthens stability."
While the open, freewheeling exchanges between Clinton and President Jiang Zemin at a televised news conference Saturday disarmed many critics of his trip, today's speech was still designed to be his most extensive statement on human rights.
"The purpose of the speech is to showcase and feature American values," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters. "Part of what this trip is about is to change stereotypical views for the American people of the Chinese people . . . and the other way around too."
Albright cited the Clinton-Jiang news conference during an appearance on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation" on Sunday to parry questions about Clinton's failure to meet with political dissidents in China.
Noting that Clinton had underscored the need for greater political expression in China, she said: "The president talked to 700 million Chinese, among them many dissidents. So he is talking to the dissidents."
Although the Jiang-Clinton exchanges seemed to suggest that China is moving in the direction of more personal freedom, a series of incidents in Beijing over the past two days involving security police served as a reminder of just how repressive the country remains by Western standards.
On Sunday, security officials detained and manhandled a middle-aged woman after she tried to approach Clinton at a church service, then body-blocked American reporters who tried to talk with her after she was released. A few hours later, security police visited the home of Bao Tong, a former senior member of the government who was jailed during the events surrounding the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and set free after spending seven years in solitary confinement. They warned him not to grant interviews to foreign journalists.
"They've got a long way to go [on human rights]," Albright said. "But the press conference was a large step in terms of progress."
This morning, shortly before Clinton spoke, Albright joined First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for a round-table discussion with members of a legal support center for women. During an hourlong talk, they heard about the struggles of lawyers and law students, mainly volunteers, in assisting women in trouble.
The stories underscored that traces of a genuine rule of law have begun to emerge in the new China. However, they also showed that in vast areas of Chinese society, the rule of law is still either nonexistent or ignored.
A 42-year-old textile worker, Zhu Huimin, related how she won a judgment granting her child support and a share of the family apartment after being thrown out by her ex-husband. But she was forced to flee her ex-husband's beatings because there are no laws against domestic violence.
As Clinton played tourist Sunday, visiting the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, senior U.S. officials tried to deal with the political fallout of Saturday's extraordinary Sino-U.S. summit.
These officials admitted that the unprecedented public exchanges between the two leaders on subjects ranging from human rights to Tibet had generated as many questions as answers about the scope and pace of China's current transition.
Among the unanswered questions were details of the surprise decision by the Chinese leadership to televise Saturday's news conference live. According to some reports, Jiang himself was responsible for the move as a last-minute concession to Clinton, giving opponents of the idea no time to block it. Other officials, however, said the issue was discussed at the Chinese national television headquarters here more than a week earlier.
Amid all the questions and new uncertainties, however, U.S. officials here agreed on one underlying fact: The spectacle brought new potential to the U.S. relationship with China.
"The press conference is a truly remarkable event, one that will have long-term ramifications," Albright said. "It has moved the relationship into an entirely new direction, both quantitatively and qualitatively."
In her talk with reporters, Albright sketched the outlines of what she saw as new potential for U.S. cooperation with China in dealing with regional concerns, including the Korean peninsula, the Asian financial crisis and the newly nuclear South Asia.
She described the array of minor accords reached between the two leaders at their Saturday summit as"progress . . . a steady accretion in terms of goodwill and the ability to work together."
Albright also rejected suggestions that other countries in the region should be alarmed about the prospect of closer U.S.-China ties.
It was clear Sunday, however, that some disagreed.
In New Delhi, the Indian government summarily denounced as "hegemonistic" a joint U.S.-Chinese statement pledging close cooperation to prevent a nuclear arms race in South Asia.
"India categorically rejects the notion of these two countries arrogating to themselves . . . responsibility for the maintenance of peace, stability and security in the region," the Indian statement declared. "This approach reflects the hegemonistic mentality of a bygone era."
India, which was defeated in a brief border war with China 36 years ago and has harbored suspicions about Beijing's regional ambitions ever since, cited a Chinese threat as one justification for its decision to conduct nuclear tests last month. The fact that China has now teamed up with the world's most powerful nation to tackle issues in South Asia can only be bad news for Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist-led government.
Visions of a cozier U.S.-China relationship have also unsettled Japan, which is worried that any American flirtation with Beijing might somehow endanger its vital security links with the United States. It is a notion Albright strenuously rejected.
"They shouldn't be rattled," she insisted. "We can have more than one friend."
Times staff writer Stanley Meisler in Washington contributed to this report. To hear Times correspondents' audio reports from China on The Times' Web site, go to: http://www.latimes.com/china