China Is Abuzz Over Openness
President Clinton’s taboo-breaking dialogue with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and his later uncensored discussion with Beijing University students--both sessions broadcast live nationwide--have sparked another debate here: Is this the beginning of more openness in China?
“It is a turning point for our country,” said Huang Renwei, a professor of American Studies at Shanghai’s Academy of Social Sciences. “It showed the two countries facing each other as equals, not only having a conversation but respecting their different opinions. It seems to be a signal that there can be more open discussion now in China.”
In the first television appearance, Clinton broke China’s nine-year silence about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to talk about the importance of human rights during his news conference with Jiang. In Monday’s speech at the university, he again put an emphasis on human rights.
Jiang parried by asserting that the crackdown, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pro-democracy, anti-corruption protesters were killed, preserved the social stability that has improved the living conditions of millions of Chinese in the last decade.
Beijing University students continued the frank exchange, asking Clinton tough questions, while this nation watched, about perceived contradictions in U.S. policy.
It was groundbreaking that the leaders were talking about such once-forbidden subjects at all--and that a potential audience of 800 million Chinese citizens could hear the results unedited. But more important, perhaps, is that the sessions have raised expectations that such public discussions on such tough issues can and should happen again.
“I think this nonscripted press conference is an innovation in China,” said Zhang Guo Liang, deputy director of Fudan University’s Journalism School. “It has never happened like this in China before, but I think that the practice will be expanded. This shows that China is getting on the track of the international advanced way of doing things.”
The sensation that has caused in China may be difficult for media-weary Americans to understand. In Jiang’s first live media session--during his visit to the United States in October--he read closely from prepared tracts, and the footage was not broadcast in China until eight months later in a special documentary aired earlier this month before Clinton’s visit.
It was only in March that Chinese viewers got their first break from carefully scripted evening news. They watched Zhu Rongji, the nation’s premier and its economic czar, answer questions and banter briefly with reporters while the cameras rolled.
That session was so well received that Zhu’s news conference is available on video in local stores--and is even being pirated.
But as spontaneous as those exchanges appeared, no piece of political theater is truly without a script.
For Jiang, the open discussion was a carefully calculated challenge to China’s conservative leaders, who prefer that debate occur behind closed doors. Chinese officials withheld permission for months for American television companies to broadcast live footage from China during the summit before finally conceding. Jiang himself is said to have made the decision to go live just hours before the news conference began.
It was the bold move of a man in charge, a national leader finally secure in his power, Western analysts said Monday.
James R. Sasser, the United States ambassador to China, called Jiang’s gauntlet toss “audacious” and “daring.”
“He took a chance, not only with the Chinese people but perhaps even with some of his own colleagues in the Chinese government,” Sasser said.
Not all of the reviews were so positive. “It is not necessarily a good thing,” said engineer Luo Zhongbao, 32. “Clinton is good at speaking--he has gone through two presidential elections. Jiang is not. . . . I don’t think CCTV [China’s state-controlled television network] will play an unedited version again.”
China’s state-controlled media had mixed reactions Monday, indicating uncertainty about how far and long the new openness will extend.
National newspapers glossed over the leaders’ controversial swerves toward Tiananmen and Tibet; a few didn’t mention the discussion of the long-banned topics at all.
But on Shanghai’s Oriental Television news Monday night, a broadcaster commented, “The press conference showed the degree of openness of China and the confidence of Chinese leaders.”
Still, even as Chinese were abuzz about their possible version of glasnost, a democracy activist who was trying to set up an opposition political party was detained Monday by Chinese police--the latest dissident rounded up during Clinton’s visit. Plainclothes police showed up at Wang Youcai’s home in the eastern city of Hangzhou, dissident groups in the United States and Hong Kong reported.
Wang had tried to register his China Democracy Party with Zhejiang provincial authorities last week but was turned away. He had planned to try again Monday afternoon, the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement said. His application was the first time Chinese dissidents have openly tried to gain government approval for an opposition party, the Washington-based Free China Movement reported.
Wang was a student leader in the democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He spent 2 1/2 years in prison for helping lead the protests and has had repeated run-ins with police ever since.
Today, the Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement said that authorities released Wang after six hours of questioning but warned him that they would take further action if he did not drop his plan to register the Chinese Democracy Party.
Wang told police it was none of their business and that he will try again to register the party with Zhejiang’s provincial department of civil affairs, the group said.
As for the import of the Clinton sessions, the big question now is if the political discussions can continue. “It was a significant starting point,” said Huang, the Shanghai professor who advised Jiang before his trip to the U.S. “The discussion will go on in some way, but not so openly and not in every field. We are still focused on market reform and economic development, and that will take 90% of our attention. We will keep 10% focused on political issues.”
* SOUTHLAND VISIT
Chinese government officials and entrepreneurs tour Glendale-based insurer. D2