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
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
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
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
--Reported by Jay Branegan with Clinton, Jaime A.
FlorCruz/ Beijing and Douglas Waller/Washington
China Report Card
Meager: There were no breakthroughs, and all the big problems
between the U.S. and China remain
High Marks: Both Presidents scored solidly with their most
important audiences--those at home
Emerging: Clinton's fulsome embrace makes it clear that a new
player is joining the Asian balance
Uncertain: If the much mentioned genie of freedom is out of the
bottle, he is still invisible
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
|Was what Clinton said to the Chinese on human rights strong enough or not 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.