After years of chill, Jiang visit signals thaw in China ties President to arrive Sunday for summit, hopes to lay past to rest

October 24, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Eight years after the Chinese government shocked the world by turning its guns on its people to crush the Tiananmen Square uprising, China's President Jiang Zemin arrives in the United States on Sunday hoping to put the past to rest.

The official visit is the first by a Chinese head of state since 1985 and marks a rapprochement between two of the world's most powerful nations after years of chilly relations following the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Symbolism may outweigh substance at the meeting. But it is significant that it is happening at all. Last year in the Pacific, China and the United States flexed their military muscles over the fate of Taiwan with missile exercises and the deployment of aircraft carriers.

The Clinton administration's subsequent shift from what critics saw as a disorganized policy that emphasized disagreements to one it terms "constructive engagement" helped lay the groundwork for this week's summit.

In the nearly two decades since China opened its doors to the world, Americans' perceptions of the nation have see-sawed. When Deng Xiaoping came to the United States in 1979, the diminutive leader charmed Americans by kissing children, mugging with the Harlem Globetrotters and donning a Stetson hat at a Houston rodeo.

Ten years later, Deng supported the army's attack on the Tiananmen demonstrators and the man Americans once viewed as a cuddly Communist was swiftly demonized. Groups supporting human and religious rights as well as a free Tibet have reinforced that view of China's leadership through continued criticism of its restrictions on religion and its jailing of dissidents.

As perceptions of China have changed, so have world politics, making relations between the two countries arguably more important than ever.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, China and the United States lost a common enemy. The United States became the world's lone superpower. China, with 1.2 billion people, nuclear weapons and a rapidly growing economy, could become the next.

"We need the United States as much as the U.S. needs us," said Wang Haihan, director of American Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, a Beijing think tank. "China is a major player in this region, and the United States realizes it needs China's cooperation to deal with certain issues."

While relations have warmed in the past year, Chinese and U.S. leaders still disagree on many issues, including human rights, Taiwan, Tibet and China's entry into the World Trade Organization. Chinese officials view some of these as internal matters and say they are not the business of the United States.

Some issues seem irreconcilable. The United States supports Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. China, which invaded Tibet in 1950, despises the Dalai Lama and accuses the exiled leader of trying to splinter the country.

American officials view Wei Jingsheng, the famous jailed figure from the 1978 Democracy Wall movement, as a prisoner of conscience and have encouraged China to release him. The Chinese government simply refers to Wei as a "criminal."

And while Taiwan, home to the Nationalists who lost the civil war in 1949, largely exists as an independent, capitalist nation, China views the island as a renegade province and vows to reclaim it.

When Taiwan held presidential elections in March 1996, China responded with missile tests offshore to intimidate voters. President Clinton felt compelled to send a carrier force into the Straits of Taiwan as a show of force.

"Taiwan is the fundamental danger here," said David M. Lampton, president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, who spoke personally and not for the New York-based, nonprofit organization. "I haven't met a generation in the PLA [People's Liberation Army] that doesn't think Taiwan is a piece of China."

Agreements to limit nuclear proliferation and weapons sales to nations such as Iran could emerge from the summit. But what Jiang wants most from the next week is enhanced prestige at home, greater respect abroad and normal relations with the United States.

Clinton's decision to grant the summit that Chinese leaders have been asking for since 1993 effectively acknowledges China's status as a great power. Jiang's barnstorming trip will cover seven cities in eight days and give him an opportunity to improve China's tarnished image with a distrustful American public.

Whether he can do so is an open question. While Jiang, a 71-year-old former Shanghai mayor, has proved himself an effective politician at home, he might not be ready for the rough-and-tumble of an American audience.

An engineer by training who usually appears stiff in public, he does not have the earthy charm of his mentor, Deng. In interviews with U.S. reporters in recent weeks, Jiang frequently relied on prepared notes and often spoke in the Communist Party's fogbound rhetoric, which even confuses the Chinese.

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