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Did The Summit Matter?

Clinton's nine-day trip through China produced no breakthroughs, but his debate with Jiang and his folksy public relations made them both look good

By Bruce W. Nelan

TIME magazine

Tourist-in-chief Bill Clinton hit five Chinese cities in nine days and obviously had a wonderful time. He put in a bit of work, debating issues with President Jiang Zemin, delivering a major speech, engaging in wonky chatfests with "ordinary" Chinese citizens, and he seemed to enjoy those too. Much of the time, though, Clinton and his family were touring, gazing at the fabulous terra-cotta army of Xian, the Great Wall, the neon-lit Shanghai Bund at night, the ethereal karst mountains of Guilin and the towering tangle of Hong Kong's skyscrapers. It was a lot more fun than hanging around Washington not answering questions about Monica Lewinsky. As White House spokesman Michael McCurry put it, referring to last week's grand jury headliner, Linda Tripp: "The President has been concentrating on one trip, and it's China, not Linda."

This journey around the summit represented a huge investment of time and attention: 11 days (counting travel time) out of the President's jammed schedule, participation of several Cabinet Secretaries, 225 staff members, hundreds of military and security personnel, all pursued by more than 400 journalists. So what did this multitude accomplish, and did it matter?

There were no dramatic breakthroughs, and it isn't easy to think of any that could have been expected. None of the big and explosive issues that divide China and the U.S., like human rights or Taiwan or the $50 billion trade imbalance in China's favor, were resolved. Jiang scored his major points as soon as Clinton stepped off Air Force One in Beijing, because he was the first U.S. President to come calling since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. For his part, Clinton was trying to demonstrate that his policy choice--engagement--pays more dividends than confrontation. Clinton was jubilant that he was able to broadcast live on Chinese television and radio, and his aides argue this could signal the opening of a new era of freer debate in China. For both sides, then, symbolism was paramount, and they made the most of it.

Jiang is staking his leadership on building a strong relationship with the U.S. He insists the two countries should have good relations in spite of their differences, a neat trick to pull off when the disagreements are so deep. But Jiang has told Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that former leader Deng Xiaoping, just before he died, personally handed him the mandate to improve ties with the U.S. So Jiang wanted Clinton to have a successful summit. If he needed any reinforcement in that, he got it when National Security Adviser Sandy Berger flew to Beijing in early June. Berger explained to Jiang that a really boffo performance was called for now that the atmosphere in the U.S. had been poisoned by charges about illegal Chinese campaign contributions and leaking satellite secrets.

Even so, the trip began badly, overshadowed by China's denial of visas to reporters from Radio Free Asia and the sweeping up of dissidents in Xian. Then Clinton flew to Beijing and, for the world to see, reviewed a military honor guard in the infamous Tiananmen Square. That's when a grateful Jiang turned things around. An hour or so before he and Clinton were to begin their image-setting joint press conference, a Chinese official walked up to McCurry and asked to talk about the arrangements. It's important to get them right, he said, "because, as you know, the press conference will be telecast live."

No, the press secretary did not know that and did not expect it. The Americans had been putting most of their pressure on getting live coverage for Clinton's scheduled speech at Peking University. As the press conference began, Clinton proceeded politely but clearly to detail the disagreements on Tiananmen, Tibet and human rights. Jiang surprised everyone by firing back at Clinton, turning the conference into China's media event of the year. After it was over, Clinton asked his chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, "What do you think?" Bowles beamed and replied, "That's why you ran for President."

Jiang invited the Clintons to an out-of the-ordinary private dinner in Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound adjoining the Forbidden City. He led the First Family over to an easel and unveiled what appeared to be a 3-ft. by 2-ft. blowup photo of the Clintons at the 1992 Democratic Convention. Up close, it turned out to be a silk embroidery--containing, Jiang said, 2.5 million stitches. The two leaders then sat down to discuss world trouble spots, Russia, the Asian financial crisis. This relaxed trading of views, U.S. officials stress, is a long way from the early, stiff meeting in Seattle in 1993, when "Jiang just sat there and read 40 minutes of notes."

The working summit in Beijing lasted only a few hours over three days, and its substantive achievements were thin. China agreed to "actively study" joining the control regime that limits the spread of missiles of more than short range. Joining would have been better, since Beijing has been pussyfooting around this control measure for years. But China has also agreed not to supply missiles to Pakistan, so this would be a plus for regional stability. That is, if Beijing lives up to its pledges, since U.S. intelligence reports indicate China has been helping Pakistan with both nuclear and missile technology.

China and the U.S. also promised to stop targeting strategic nuclear missiles at each other. The step is militarily meaningless because the missiles can be retargeted in minutes, but it is symbolic. Jiang oversold it, saying, "This demonstrates to the entire world that China and the U.S. are partners, not adversaries."

Clinton believed that he was succeeding even after he left the capital. He made two more appearances on radio and television to talk about human rights, democracy, freedom. He staged impromptu mini-town meetings with Chinese businessmen, villagers and students about the environment, housing and the rule of law. It was almost like a domestic campaign swing, and Clinton grinned and loved it. There was a sense, aides said, that the atmosphere for free debate was loosening up. Jiang, says a U.S. official, "was prepared to encourage some slight opening of forbidden subjects. He may be looking for a degree of liberalization."

This trickle-down theory of free speech is probably premature. Letting Clinton have his say via live broadcast was unprecedented in China, but all his sensitive comments on the taboo subjects were left out of newspaper accounts and the regular television news programs. Meanwhile, the security services continued to grab any dissidents who threatened to give the government an argument. If a thaw is coming, it isn't visible yet.

The success by acclamation of the summit, says a senior White House official, "legitimizes the President's leadership on the China issue. We have demonstrated that engagement is a way to get results." Clinton set out, his aides say, to "de-demonize" China. In the process, Clinton did a peerless public relations job for Jiang's authoritarian state, effusively praising his intellect, energy and imagination.

By embracing China and its future so publicly, Clinton sent shudders through other countries in the region. Japan was worried, Taiwan was dismayed and India was furious. Nor was Clinton's audience of critics back home fully convinced. "There's no question he has given [Beijing] a public relations coup," says Representative Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. "How the regime responds will determine the ultimate success of the summit." The Chinese, says James Lilley, a former ambassador to Beijing, made Clinton look good, "and they made Jiang Zemin look as though he could handle the Americans."

White House officials are now offering a theory of summits that was heard occasionally during the cold war era. Such meetings are necessary, they say, because lower-level bureaucrats won't get things done unless they see their bosses agreeing on them. But infrequent summits come freighted with unrealistic expectations. Therefore, summits should be held regularly. "We want them to become routine," says McCurry, "so that they lay the groundwork for getting business done, not the place where the business is done." If Clinton follows through, he may be able to fit in another glorious summer holiday in China next year.

--Reported by Jay Branegan with Clinton, Jaime A. FlorCruz/ Beijing and Douglas Waller/Washington

China Report Card

Substantive Agreements
Meager: There were no breakthroughs, and all the big problems between the U.S. and China remain

Domestic Politics
High Marks: Both Presidents scored solidly with their most important audiences--those at home

Strategic Partnership
Emerging: Clinton's fulsome embrace makes it clear that a new player is joining the Asian balance

Changing China
Uncertain: If the much mentioned genie of freedom is out of the bottle, he is still invisible

Overall Grade
Incomplete: The White House says the idea now is to make such summits frequent and routine


How much did Clinton's trip to China accomplish?
A great deal/a fair amount
Not much/nothing
Was what Clinton said to the Chinese on human rights strong enough or not strong enough?
Strong enough
Not strong enough
Do you think China is changing for the better, for the worse, or staying the same?

From a telephone poll of 1,024 adult Americans taken on June 30 and July 1 for TIME/CNN by Yankelovich Partners Inc.

Sampling error +/- 3.1. "Not sures" omitted.
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: July 13, 1998

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Let's Play Doctor
Ahead Of The Feds
A Republican Who's Taking His Medicine
The Lesson From Webb
Did the Summit Matter?
Use It Or Lose It
Dressed For Success

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