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China Photo-Op Diplomacy

Pretty pictures of a changing China were supposed to support Clinton's policy of engagement, but China's leaders are still struggling to master the intricacies of global propaganda

By Jay Branegan/Beijing

TIME magazine

(TIME, July 6) -- President Clinton, who went to see the New China of entrepreneurs and cell phones, was welcomed with a ceremony from the Old China, featuring actors and musicians in elaborate Tang dynasty costumes. Both Chinese and American officials hoped this nine-day trip would, by pointing up positive changes since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, promote what a senior State Department official called "the de-demonization of China."

The first signs were not auspicious. Just before Clinton left the U.S., Beijing revoked the visas of three Radio Free Asia journalists who had planned to accompany his entourage. The Chinese also pulled the plug on a highly publicized (and relatively racy) Shanghai opera that was due to play New York City next week. More bad headlines came after Clinton arrived in the ancient capital of Xian, when a Hong Kong-based human-rights group reported that some local dissidents had been detained to ensure a smooth visit for Clinton. (National Security Adviser Sandy Berger complained that China was acting as if people were "debris to be swept up for a visitor.") Clinton's job of softening China's image was proving harder than anyone expected.

That began to change on Saturday, when Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin held a joint press conference that was broadcast live across China. It was an astonishing affair, as Clinton and Jiang parried over human rights, Tiananmen Square and Tibet. Clinton patiently explained the U.S. position on Tiananmen: "I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong." Jiang countered by insisting, "Had the Chinese government not taken the resolute measures, we could not have enjoyed the stability we are enjoying today." Without prompting, Jiang denied that China had tried to influence American politics with campaign donations ("sheer fabrication") and said that the government would be glad to begin talks with the Dalai Lama if only the Buddhist leader would unequivocally accept Chinese sovereignty over the region. (Translation: Don't expect the Dalai Lama to rush to the phone.)

It was only at the last minute that Chinese officials announced that they would go along with the U.S. request to broadcast the session live--a significant concession to Clinton. The press conference ran 70 minutes, far longer than its allotted 30 minutes, leading the government-TV anchor to note dryly that "it seems communication needs time." After decades of tensions, China and America still seem to need all the time they can get.

--With reporting by Jaime A. FlorCruz/Xian
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: July 6, 1998

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