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Form is the function of Clinton's trip to China


By Rebecca MacKinnon
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief

In this story:

June 26, 1998
Web posted at: 2:04 p.m. EDT (1804 GMT)

BEIJING (CNN) -- The picture that will matter most to China from Saturday's summit between Chinese President Jiang Zemin and U.S. President Bill Clinton is of the two men shaking hands, smiling together as equals, in China.

In movie theaters and on state-run television in the days leading up to the meeting, that same image from Jiang's visit to the United States last fall has been shown, over and over again.

Ahead of Clinton's arrival, China publicized the news by showing pictures from Jiang's trip to the U.S.  

Most people on the street say they want the United States and China to be friends.

"When the U.S. and China are friends, the whole world will be stable because nobody will dare mess with us," said Yang Hanjun, an office worker.

Those whose job it is to think about such issues put it in a more sophisticated way.

The meeting "shows Clinton recognizes China's importance," according to Qian Wenrong of the Xinhua International Affairs Center. "In the future, China will play its own role in international affairs as much as possible. This will be part of the Sino-U.S. strategic partnership."

But while the two leaders reaffirm their commitment to better relations, no major agreements are likely to be announced Saturday.

The words pictures say

Both sides admit the most important outcome will not be that of substance but of style: the tone the leaders set -- and the image they portray -- for the future.

The new images will try to overcome others from China, notably those of the bloody crackdown on student demonstrators for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

More recently, in 1996, came images of Chinese war games near Taiwan, an island Beijing claims as a renegade province. As China threatened Taiwan with military attack if it rejected Beijing's goal of eventual reunification, the United States sent aircraft carriers into the area as a warning.

But Clinton's schedule is designed to highlight other kinds of images, such as peasant farmers voting for their own village leaders, and fashionably dressed young people surfing for information in Internet cafes.

This should send an image of China's increasingly diverse society, where government's role in everyday lives is shrinking, according to Robert Scalapino, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley.

"I think it's very important that the president, when he goes home, tries to portray China as it is, in its full complexity," Scalapino said.

Beijing, June 1989  

Half-empty or half-full?

But when it comes to Clinton's critics back home, it could be a hard sell.

There's an ongoing investigation into whether the Chinese government sought to influence U.S. election campaigns. And there are allegations U.S. satellite companies may have transferred to China technology that could be used to make its missiles better able to hit U.S. cities.

Such reports are factored into the wider debate about China's intentions as a rising world power.

"We've got to decide whether China is a friend or a foe," said Ron Montaperto, a China specialist at National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

"You have to assume, I think, that any technology that is transferred is going to be eventually used for military purposes," he said.

And on human rights, some critics say Clinton's willingness to be welcomed at the Great Hall of the People, which overlooks Tiananmen Square, is inappropriate. That's because, nine years later, China's leaders still justify the crackdown on unarmed students there.

But supporters of Clinton's trip believe that engaging the Chinese leadership is the best way to encourage change.

"When the relationship between America and China is in a good phase, a lot more becomes possible in China," said Tony Saich, director of the Ford Foundation's China office.

"I think the Chinese leadership relaxes, I think discussion about reform becomes more possible. Many more ideas can be floated."

Dai Qing, a Beijing journalist banned from publishing inside China since 1989, said that over the past year, as U.S.-China relations have warmed, her colleagues have been allowed to publish more critical articles.

The tricky parts

Clinton has made it clear he will raise the issue of human rights when he meets with Jiang on Saturday. And he will speak publicly on freedom and democracy.

A number of Chinese say they're glad.

"Of course he should bring up human rights," said a schoolteacher who declined to give his full name. "It could help spur progress in our government's democratization. That's not a bad thing."

"Better U.S.-China relations are a good thing," said Tang Wenzhao, a laid-off worker turned bicycle repairman. "China can learn a lot of things from the U.S. America is a democratic country. It's always on the side of democracy."

"I'm just an ordinary guy," said Zhao Fugui, a 17-year-old construction worker. "But yeah, I think he should bring it up."

Veteran dissident Xu Wenli wrote Clinton to invite him to meet with members of the political opposition. But administration officials said Clinton will not meet dissidents on this trip, so as not to endanger them or embarrass his hosts.

Clinton aides cite pressing issues with which the U.S. needs Chinese help: a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, the Asian financial crisis and military instability on the Korean Peninsula.

Shaping the future

Twenty-six years after U.S. President Richard Nixon made his historic first trip to China, some observers believe this week's summit could be just as important, perhaps more.

"It's going to shape the future of the international order for the next five to 10 years, even more than President Nixon's visit to China," said Professor Huang Yasheng of Harvard University.

"It's going to shape Chinese behavior at a very critical time, when the Chinese economy is growing very fast."

A Chinese official summed up Beijing's stance on the United States this way: "We can be your friend, or we can be your enemy. It's up to you."

That may be oversimplifying it a bit, but Clinton is betting that by engaging China with respect -- instead of isolating it -- he can do more to improve the lives of ordinary Chinese, and prevent this rising power from becoming a threat to the United States.

Meanwhile, both Clinton and Jiang are hoping their meeting's take-home image, at least, will be a friendly one.

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