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What They Said In Private

Even before the official summit began, Clinton tutored China's President Jiang on American values

By Bruce W. Nelan

Time cover

(TIME, November 10) -- Jiang Zemin had an appointment with Bill Clinton at the White House last Tuesday night to talk about some of the touchier items on the agenda for the next day's summit meeting. But before that, to prep the visiting Chinese President for the private session, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dropped by to see him at Blair House, the government's guest quarters. She warned Jiang that Clinton was going to push human rights very strongly that night. The U.S. press and public would judge Jiang on what he had to say on the issue, she said. "That's the way our system works." Blair House, a Federal-style building, is furnished with fine period pieces and fireplaces, but no fire was burning in the room where the two sat. "Well, Madame Secretary," Jiang told her, "if only there were a fire in the fireplace, we could talk all night about human rights."

A little later, when Jiang walked into the Yellow Oval Room on the second, residential floor of the White House, a fire was blazing briskly in the fireplace. It was a coincidence, but Jiang noted it. "I was just saying to the Secretary," he remarked, "if a fire was burning, we could talk all night." He left out the part about human rights, and Clinton noticed. Albright had filled him in on exactly what Jiang had said.

The handling of crusty, hidebound communist leaders is almost a lost art in Washington, and the Clinton Administration tried hard to get it right with Jiang, the first Chinese head of state to visit in 12 years. Clinton did not want the summit to appear too cozy to domestic audiences, and he did not want Jiang simply to soak up the glory and prestige the ceremonies in Washington would provide him. The top man in a one-party dictatorship is never going to be America's cup of tea, and relations cannot be normal until the regime's brutality to its own people has ended. Even so, the U.S. relationship with China is too important to be held hostage to the human-rights issue alone. So Clinton's summit strategy was to drive home the point that even if disagreements are obvious, they should be managed, not magnified.

Clinton gave Jiang a 20-minute White House tour to break the ice. The first stop was the Lincoln Bedroom, and Clinton pointed to a picture of Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation on the very spot where they were standing. A copy of the Gettysburg Address is also on display in the room, and Jiang began reciting, "Four score and seven years ago," in English. Clinton showed off his desk in the private quarters, on which major peace pacts, including one between Israel and the Palestinians, had been signed. Clinton chose this itinerary to focus Jiang on the liberties Americans hold precious and the possibilities for peace even between old enemies.

Then the two Presidents sat down facing each other in high-backed armchairs, with their top aides on nearby sofas. This session had been Clinton's idea and against the advice of his political strategists and media spin specialists. The political handlers wanted to hear no charges of "coddling dictators," a phrase Clinton had used against George Bush in the 1992 campaign. Finally, Clinton overruled his aides on having a private chat with Jiang, saying, "Listen, I can't really see where he stands on these things and really express my own feelings unless I'm able to meet with him alone or with a very small group."

So the meeting began with only two aides plus interpreters on each side. True to Albright's promise, Clinton cranked up a lesson in history and civics, explaining to Jiang the Bill of Rights, the liberties every U.S. citizen is guaranteed and the separation of powers among the three branches of government. Much of that, he explained, arose from Americans' distrust of a strong central government. "Even I have taken a lot of criticism the past six years," said Clinton, a line he would use at the press conference the following day. "China is on the wrong side of history," Clinton told Jiang--another preview of the press session--then ticked off the names of the dissidents Washington wanted to see freed, and complained about China's harsh rule in Tibet.

China also has plenty of history to lecture on, and Jiang pitched right in, arguing in effect that his great nation is entitled to its own values and its own definition of good government. As far as human rights were concerned, he claimed, China's steady economic growth has reduced the number of people living below the poverty line from 250 million to 50 million. With more than 1 billion people in all, China has to be more concerned than other nations about stability. Dissidents were in jail for criminal activity, not their political views, he insisted. "We just see these things from different points of view," Jiang maintained. The standoff continued for an hour and 45 minutes, when the two Presidents parted with a respectful handshake.

They met again the next morning for 30 minutes in the Oval Office, with Jiang observing, "It's important for me to see the U.S. Even if we don't see eye to eye on issues, we have to work together." The two Presidents did all the talking, and neither used notes. They agreed on the need to keep sending food aid to North Korea so the regime there does not become even more desperate. Regional stability--meaning relations mainly among the U.S., China and Japan--was vital, and, said Jiang, so was "the need to move beyond the past."

Clinton brought up the importance of a secure future for Hong Kong in a suddenly turbulent Asian financial climate. Jiang agreed with that too and said he was glad the New York Stock Exchange had rebounded because he was going to open its session when he was in New York City on Friday. "I don't want to put the gavel down and have [the market] plummet," he joked.

The formal summit meeting was held in the Cabinet Room, crammed with aides. Clinton said the U.S. favored a leadership role for China in every international organization and therefore backed Chinese entry into the new World Trade Organization as soon as possible, but the country will have to lower its trade barriers before that happens. The Americans took pains to deny Beijing's standard propaganda charge that the U.S. is determined to prevent China from gaining great-power status. Vice President Al Gore spoke on energy and the environment, but he also said, "There is nothing in the U.S. position to suggest it has a policy of inhibiting China's economic growth." Albright emphasized how important it was for China to pay a larger contribution to the U.N. Jiang broke into English to retort, "You are a rich country; we are a poor country."

There was no need to revisit China's agreement to halt its assistance to Iran's nuclear program. That had finally been worked out just minutes before the meeting. In the past, Chinese arms-control assurances have usually been oral promises or couched in the form of dinner-table toasts. This time the U.S. wanted something in writing that promised to cut off nuclear aid to Tehran. That would open the door for American firms to sell nuclear power reactors to China. When Jiang's plane had touched down three days before in Honolulu, the haggling over the form of the deal was still going on. As Jiang was conferring with Clinton in the Oval Office on Wednesday morning, Albright and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen finally agreed on a compromise: a confidential, two-page letter from Qian that can now be shown to key members of Congress.

When the formal summit wound up, it was on to the joint press conference, which turned out to be one of the most extraordinary heads-of-state shows ever. Instead of the usual bland papering over of disputes, this turned into a public argument on human rights, with the journalists looking on almost as spectators. Some U.S. officials had predicted that the press conference would let Americans see just how difficult the Chinese can be to deal with and how strange the world looks from Beijing's perspective. That was how it turned out.

Clinton opened the debate when he told a questioner there had been "profound disagreements" over human rights. Jiang stoked it when he said he had no regrets over the brutal suppression of freedom demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, a "political disturbance" that had "seriously disrupted social stability and jeopardized state security." The Chinese government simply "had to take necessary measures, according to law." Clinton jumped back in, saying, "I think it should be obvious to everyone that we have a very different view of the meaning of events at Tiananmen Square." Beijing's attitude on dissent has kept it from receiving "the level of support in the rest of the world that otherwise would have developed," he said.

Jiang wouldn't let it drop. In English, he burst out, "I would like to speak a few words in addition to this question." He repeated the familiar argument that China has a different history and cultural traditions, and so "it is just natural for our two countries to hold different views on some issues." And of course, he added, "as for the general rules universally abided by in the world, China also abides by these rules."

That was too much for Clinton, who interjected, "Let me--I just have to say one other thing." China is on the right side of history on many things, he said, but on this the Chinese government "is on the wrong side of history." Clinton had used the same words in private the night before, and they were a searing judgment on Jiang, a Marxist who feels he is following the scientific laws of history. "There is, after all," Clinton said, "a Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Jiang was unmoved. He replied to a question about imprisoned dissidents by snapping, "I am the President of the People's Republic of China, not the chief judge of the Supreme Court of China!"

Hot and heavy as it was, this set-to did not seem to faze Jiang and his delegation. "The big achievement," says a Chinese official, was having the summit at all. If there was any payoff on issues, it was Clinton's assurance that he did not support independence for Taiwan. Says a White House official: "From Jiang's standpoint, this trip was about getting the right pictures."

The Americans, this time, take the longer view. Clinton and his advisers knew they wouldn't get far on human rights because it is not merely a question of the way China's government treats its citizens. For Jiang and his colleagues in Beijing, human-rights concerns strike at the legitimacy of their rule and how they maintain power. If they let up on political dissent, they fear, they might find themselves out of a job or even in a prison. At the same time, it is getting harder for them to rule simply by brute force, and they depend on economic growth to damp down discontent.

A few years ago, a Chinese ruler like Deng Xiaoping would have dismissed human rights as a purely domestic concern and refused to talk about it. Last week Jiang showed he is willing to confront the topic in public as well as in private. By Washington's calculation, that is progress. The two countries have decided they have to work together on a lot of issues and have begun talking seriously about them. Ever the optimists, the Americans hope there will be more progress next time, and the time after, now that they have agreed to regular summits and other meetings. Teaching the value of liberty to the Chinese communists could be an impossible assignment, even with instructional materials like the Gettysburg Address, but Clinton is obviously willing to make a start.

--Reported by Jaime A. FlorCruz with Jiang and J.F.O. McAllister and Douglas Waller/Washington

Spots On The Red Carpet

From the calm shores of Hawaii to the agitated halls of Harvard, China's President toured the U.S. amid pageantry and protest. Some high and low points:

Least successful attempt to compete with Alan Greenspan

When Jiang Zemin strode onto the red carpet at the White House and 21 guns fired, CNN covered the event live, but the Chinese leader had to share a split screen with the Fed chairman, who was trying to convince Congress that the stock-market plunge was a good thing.

Most dubious duet prospect

Jiang played the Hawaiian steel guitar in Honolulu and mentioned that fact to Bill Clinton, adding, "Sometime I also would like to play some flute. I know you play very good sax."

Coldest snubs

New York Governor George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani refused to greet Jiang in the Big Apple. Virginia Governor George Allen had at least sent his wife Susan to toast Jiang at Williamsburg, but she also lectured him on "universal human principles."

Least spontaneous gesture

Jiang donned a tricorn hat in Williamsburg. Surely his handlers weren't thinking of the time Deng Xiaoping mugged for cameras wearing a 10-gallon hat in Texas.

Most thoughtful gesture

Hillary Clinton sat down during the welcoming ceremony so that Jiang's frail wife Wang Yeping could get off her feet as well.

Best disclaimer

Hollywood film mogul Steven Spielberg at the state dinner: "I'm not here as a businessman. In a sense, I feel like I'm Forrest Gump eavesdropping on a moment in history."

Most dubious historical analogy

Jiang declared that just as America had freed its slaves, China had rid Tibet of a feudal theocracy that made its people "serfs and slaves."

Scariest historical analogy

In discussing the Taiwan issue, Jiang noted that the U.S. had fought a civil war to reunify the country.

Most open-minded demonstrator

Bette Bao Lord joined the anti-Jiang protests in Washington's Lafayette Square. Later she attended the White House state dinner in Jiang's honor with her husband Winston Lord, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Most off-base demonstrator

A woman at Williamsburg carried a placard telling Jiang to REMEMBER YOUR FAMINE. Asked which famine the message referred to, she replied, "I don't know, but I saw on the news that they have no food there." North Korea maybe?

Most off-base sports reference

Presented with a Philadelphia Flyers ice-hockey jersey, a beaming Jiang shouted that his grandson had lived in the city and "loved the football!"

Biggest incentive to keep things friendly

The U.S.- China agreement for Beijing to buy 50 Boeing jetliners for $3 billion.

Most successful attempt to compete with Alan Greenspan

When Jiang gaveled open the New York Stock Exchange on Friday morning, the Dow Jones industrial average, much to the Chinese leader's relief, surged 108.55 points in 17 minutes and managed to finish the day up 60.41 points.


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