Baker, after tough talks, attends Beijing church

November 17, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- Getting nowhere with the Chinese government, U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III turned this morning to the dark confines of a historic church where more than 30 Chinese were baptized into the Christian faith.

Attending the multidenominational church service was an apparent effort by Mr. Baker to emphasize for his Chinese hosts the high value that Americans place on freedom of belief.

Chinese security agents put on their own display, roughing up several American reporters outside, including two who are parish members.

Patience, if not faith, of biblical proportions already has been required of Mr. Baker during his two days of extensive, difficult talks here with senior Chinese leaders.

His politically risky visit has not yet yielded any sign of a Chinese concession on the human rights, arms control and trade conflicts that have caused a profound deterioration in Sino-U.S. relations.

Instead, China has been sending clear signals that it is more than willing to live with, rather than immediately solve, its differences with the United States. Quoting a Chinese proverb, "Climb higher if you want to see farther," Chinese Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin told Mr. Baker that Sino-American relations would improve only through a long-term view, said the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wu Jianmin.

A senior U.S. official cautioned last night that Chinese leaders could still respond to Mr. Baker's proposals before his plane leaves Beijing in the early afternoon today.

But, as a measure of U.S. frustration with China's failure to respond to Mr. Baker's pleas to free its political prisoners and curtail its arms and nuclear weapons sales, the U.S. official described his talks here "as every bit as tough and as difficult" as his last eight months of negotiations in the Middle East.

China long sought the visit by Mr. Baker, the most senior U.S. official to come to China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. But it was a political gamble for the Bush administration that appears not to be immediately paying off.

While China reaped symbolic respect from the visit, Mr. Baker's apparent failure to leave here with a concession is likely to play into the hands of congressional critics who have been lambasting the Bush administration for kowtowing to China.

Chinese leaders did tell Mr. Baker that they intend to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty before the end of this year, according to Mr. Wu. But they made the same promise to Japanese leader Toshiki Kaifu in August, and since then China's normally rubber-stamp legislature has considered but delayed approving the pact.

Mr. Baker was said to have made strong appeals on behalf of Chinese political prisoners, at least 1,000 of whom are believed held in connection with the Tiananmen Square protests. But Mr. Wu said that "any action that the Chinese judicial organs will take are entirely something that the China side should decide."

China's unyielding stance on its human rights abuses underscored the symbolism of Mr. Baker's visit to the Chongwenmen Christian Church, a sooty gray brick structure off a narrow lane known as Back Gutter Alley.

The church was founded by American Methodists 123 years ago, destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion, rebuilt in 1902, used as a warehouse during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and reopened in 1982. Its simple, wood-paneled interior boasts a few turn-of-the-century stained-glass windows and Chinese characters on one wall that translate, "God is with us."

More than 1,300 congregants, about 90 percent Chinese, usually attend Sunday services. That number has grown steadily since the crackdown on the pro-democracy protests in June 1989, said the Rev. Kan Xueqing, general secretary of the Beijing Christian Council.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Kan led services at another Beijing church attended by President Bush when he headed the U.S. liaison office here. Mr. Bush's daughter, Dorothy, was baptized there.

During his 1989 visit here, the president, along with Mr. Baker, attended services at the Chongwenmen church. Though he was only given three days' notice that Mr. Baker was coming to services today, Mr. Kan was taking it in stride yesterday.

"It's just going to be a normal service," he said. "Now, if the president came back, then we'd really have a celebration."

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