Clinton Courts A Future China
By John F. Harris
"Americans believe . . . and our experience demonstrates, that freedom strengthens stability and helps nations to change," Clinton said. "In the world we live in, this global Information Age, constant improvement and change is necessary to economic opportunity and national strength. Therefore, the freest possible flow of information, ideas and opinions, and a greater respect for divergent political and religious convictions will actually breed strength and stability."
In wide-ranging remarks that included probing questions from students, Clinton hailed what he said could be a great future for China, but he warned that its people must embrace not merely the economic reforms of recent years but also concepts of political liberty that for the most part are still alien to the world's most populous nation.
The president's commentary on subjects ranging from the high-tech revolution to China's environmental problems to its relationships with bordering nations received an enthusiastic reception from the students -- China's next generation of political and economic leaders. But even as Clinton presented himself as tutor to the young men and women, he found his own motives under question. Responding to a questioner who asked if there was a hidden agenda to contain China "behind the smile," Clinton said: "My words mean exactly what they say. . . . I'm not hiding another design behind a smile."
Clinton aides had regarded the university appearance as a centerpiece of the president's nine-day tour of China, and its impact was amplified by the Beijing government's decision -- at the last moment -- to telecast it live, just as last Saturday it aired a blunt-spoken news conference debate between Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin. However, many Chinese viewers reported that sound reception was sporadic throughout the broadcast, and it was unclear how many viewers heard Clinton's words.
At times in today's speech, Clinton seemed to be conducting a kind of civics lesson. Challenged by one student on how he would react if he were heckled -- as Jiang was when he spoke at Harvard University last fall -- Clinton responded that he is verbally attacked and criticized all the time in the United States and finds it bracing. Quoting Benjamin Franklin to the effect that a person should consider critics as friends because they reveal his faults, Clinton joked that he sometimes has "more friends than anyone else" in America.
Even while discoursing on democratic ideals, the president seemed at pains not to lecture his audience on American superiority. "Keep in mind slavery was legal in America for many years and that we are still not perfect," he said. I don't think it's right for any person to claim he lives in a perfect country."
Clinton, aides said, had been brooding in recent days about how to strike a balance in his address between education and condescension. The result was a speech aimed at connecting with China's emerging elite by mingling references to Jeffersonian traditions with tributes to the bountiful possibilities of computer technology.
Aides said the president did not want the speech to be a sermon on human rights -- which he felt the Chinese would dismiss as hectoring by an outsider -- but to make the case for expanded democracy and freedom of expression here by appealing to China's national interest.
The president's argument to the students was that their country's traditional emphasis on order and central control in all facets of economic and political life is incompatible with the new world of global commerce and communications. "Everything we know about the way the world is changing and the challenges your generation will face tells us that our two nations will be better off working together than apart," Clinton said.
Still, he did not neglect the human rights issue, saying: "I believe that everywhere, people aspire to be treated with dignity . . . to give voice to their opinions . . . to choose their own leaders, to associate freely with others and to worship how, when and where they want."
"These are not American rights, or European rights or developed world rights," the president said. "They are the birthrights of people everywhere." Personal freedom, he said, is the "mandate of the 21st century."
In the midst of the first visit by a U.S. president to China since the government's 1989 crackdown on democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Clinton had planned initially to use the speech to condemn that bloody episode and Beijing's broader habits of repression. But, after making some of these points at the joint news conference Saturday with Jiang, he and aides concluded that the university speech should be more forward-looking.
"I would like the productive relationship we now enjoy to blossom into a fuller partnership for the new century," Clinton told his audience. "If that is to happen, it is important that we understand each other, our common interests and aspirations, and our differences."
At times, Clinton sounded much as he might if he were delivering a campaign speech in Boston. He boasted about his deficit-reduction record and his program to provide tax credits for community college courses, and he reiterated ideas about national benefits brought by technology that could have been lifted from virtually any speech he has given on the road at home.
But the president's staff also researched ways to make points about American values in ways calculated to resonate with the Chinese. He noted that the base of the Washington Monument contains a stone that was a gift to the United States in 1853. The stone, Clinton said, is inscribed with a quotation of Xu Jiyu, onetime governor of China's Fujian province, noting that in America, "state affairs are put to the vote of public opinion."
Several of the students' questions seemed direct reflections of official Chinese government views. One pressed Clinton on U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan and observed that, "to our great indignation," Japan and the United States have renewed a security pact that the Chinese suspect is aimed at containing their nation.
Clinton repeated the official U.S. "one-China policy" and urged China and Taiwan to pursue a peaceful reunification. He denied that the United States is trying to contain China and said the nation must decide how to "define its greatness" in the years ahead -- whether through "economic success" and "cultural influence" or by dominating neighbors militarily.
Some students said they had been concerned that Clinton might strike a sanctimonious pose. "Some American politicians try to force their opinions on others; this is hard to take," said Qi Yi, a 34-year-old mathematics major. But he said that Clinton's acknowledgment of American imperfections made his overall message "easier to accept."
Clinton's appearance before about 600 students had an academic tone about it, but afterwards he strolled out onto the campus lawn and mingled with some of several thousand students who had gathered there in a pep-rally atmosphere.
Clinton's efforts to formulate his message to the students came on a sweltering day on which the president, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea toured some of the most spectacular creations of China's imperial age -- Beijing's sprawling, ornate Forbidden City and the Great Wall.
"It's even more magnificent than I had imagined," Clinton told reporters after slogging up a steep section of the 3,000-mile-long wall, a Chinese landmark and a mandatory stop for visiting dignitaries. "I believe this wall is now a symbol that China shows to the rest of the world, not a wall to keep people out."
Clinton visited the Mutianyu section of the wall, about 40 miles north of Beijing, which was built in the 6th century and reconstructed in the 14th. The Clintons seemed equally struck by the Forbidden City, a nearly 600-year-old compound from which the Ming and Qing dynasties governed.
Beijing University, which marks its 100th anniversary this year, is regarded as China's most prestigious institution of higher learning, and historically it has been a center of liberal thought. Its students played a central role in organizing the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, in which hundreds of people were killed by army troops.
Before his day of touring, Clinton went to Sunday services and spoke briefly at Chongwenmen Church, the largest Protestant congregation in Beijing. While there, a woman who described herself as a charismatic Christian ran up and spoke to the president before she was hauled off by Chinese security men. "She just kept saying how happy she was that I was in the church and how she wished I could come to the little village where she was from," Clinton told reporters. White House press secretary Michael McCurry said the woman, whose name was given as Chen Anbi, was apparently "not entirely steady."
Steven Mufson contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company