The Pluses and the Minuses

By Fisher, Richard D., Jr. | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

The Pluses and the Minuses


Fisher, Richard D., Jr., The World and I


President Bill Clinton visited China from June 25 to July 3, returning the visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin in October 1997. The visit was mired in controversy long before it began. Clinton was able to score some rhetorical victories and give the Chinese people a brief contrast to their own leaders. But Clinton also made a number of concessions to China, especially on U.S. policy toward Taiwan, that will fuel criticism and controversy long after the summit.

While never publicly acknowledged, the president's visit to China originally was envisioned to take place in late 1998, perhaps after the U.S. congressional elections. It was China that requested that the visit be moved up to June. Likely fearing that June would be a miasma of impending court action over the president's various sex and legal troubles, the White House may have calculated that an early summit would provide a much needed political diversion.

Focusing attention on policy

Instead, advancing the date helped focus intense congressional and media attention on Clinton's China policy. In addition to Clinton's personal scandals, allegations that China had obtained U.S. missile or satellite technology and made Democratic Party -- with possible links to satellite business--cast a greater cloud over the visit.

In changing the date, the White House began the process of granting concessions to China that was to continue throughout the trip. First, holding the summit in June was immediately viewed by critics as insulting to that many students and workers massacred by Chinese soldiers in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

Making matters worse, Clinton agreed to a Tiananmen Square receiving ceremony, an act protested by many in Congress before the visit. Clinton also agreed to China's request that he stay for nine days, a very long visit for U.S. president and a symbolic display of respect.

On top of this, Clinton agreed not to visit any other Asian capital during his trip to Asia, a clear bow to China's goal of making the United States highlight its relationship with China over that with Japan. And as if this were not enough, days before he left, Clinton relented by not reversing China's refusal to grant visas to three Radio Free Asia reporters. Though he granted the reporters a presummit interview, Clinton was going against summit precedent in allowing them to be barred from the trip.

Strategic partnership

The administration designed the trip to stress the importance of the U.S.-China relationship, which it seeks to cast a "strategies partnerships," and to highlight contemporary and historic aspects of China. The latter was represented by Clinton's June 25 visit to city of Xian, which contains the famous clay soldiers guarding an imperial tomb. And on June 27 the Clintons toured the Forbidden City, home to China's former emperors and present political elite, and the nearby Great Wall.

Clinton was lauded both in China and at home during his two major public appearances, which allowed him to display his political communication skills. A 70-minute press conference with Jiang on June 26 saw both leaders hail new agreement to "detarget" strategic nuclear missiles pointed at each other and then spar over issues of human rights, democracy, and Tibet.

Mere hours before the conference the Chinese decided to allow it to be aired live, giving Clinton an unprecedented opportunity to reach out to these Chinese people. …

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