Mounting U.S. grievances cast shadow on summit with China Beijing's actions prompt pressure on White House for tougher policy stance

October 24, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Contributing writer Eric Lekus contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Next week's visit of President Jiang Zemin of China is shaping up as a severe test of President Clinton's celebrated ability to control the national discourse in ways that benefit him.

The president will have the first word -- but not the last -- in a speech today in which he will make the case to his countrymen for a working relationship with the repressive leaders of the world's most populous nation.

"We have a very wide range of interests regarding China," Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, said yesterday while previewing the speech. "We cannot isolate China. We can only isolate ourselves from China."

Yet the list of American grievances against China's leaders is long and getting longer. Pressure on the president comes from Clinton's own Democratic Party and from the Republican Party, from labor unions and human rights groups, from the Christian right and from liberal Catholic bishops.

In Congress, several measures that would impose sanctions against China are pending. Interest groups are urging Clinton to take tough stands during the summit. When Jiang tours such hallowed symbols of American freedom and democracy as Pearl Harbor, the Liberty Bell and the White House, demonstrators will be within shouting distance.

Long list of complaints

Chinese officials have told their U.S. counterparts it's time for them to move past the discord that spilled from the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. White House officials may agree. But the crackdown on protesters is just one U.S. grievance.

The list includes the incarceration of political dissidents in China; the gulag of forced labor camps; the willingness of China to share missile and nuclear technology with Iran; China's harsh rule in Tibet; and its sometimes predatory form of international trade.

An additional issue puts Clinton in an especially awkward position: evidence being pursued by the FBI that suggests China may have tried to influence U.S. elections -- possibly including funneling money into Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign.

White House officials indicated yesterday that they did not think Clinton would raise that issue -- and they are counting on Jiang not to do so.

But the Chinese do not seem to be doing Clinton any other favors. Chinese officials this week privately warned the Clinton administration against appointing an envoy to Tibet while Jiang is on U.S. soil. Publicly, they stated that they expect U.S. officials to control anti-Beijing demonstrators.

"We are guests of the American government, so we hope the U.S. government will do a good job so their so-called dissidents will not realize their aim of disrupting this state visit and disrupting U.S-Sino relations," said Yu Shuning, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "Everything should go smoothly."

"America is a democracy, and we are not seeking to infringe in any way on the rights of Americans to have their voices be heard," responded James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman. "And the fact that the Chinese president is here doesn't change that principle upon which this nation was based."

Mike McCurry, Clinton's spokesman, went further, suggesting that seeing freedom in action first-hand might be beneficial for the 71-year-old Chinese Communist leader.

"Welcome to democracy," McCurry quipped.

Public opinion effort

At the same time, White House officials expressed hopes that Clinton will convince his countrymen that China is too large and powerful a nation to simply be ignored, and that the most effective way to exert influence is to keep talking, trading and negotiating with Asia's dominant power.

"It is not often that the president makes a speech on a single foreign policy topic," said Jeffrey A. Bader, director of Asian affairs at the White House National Security Council. "That in itself reflects on the importance that the president attaches to this."

In 1993, the president delivered a speech on why he thought it was in the nation's interest to nurture democracy in Russia, even to the point of spending billions of dollars in aid. That address, delivered at the Naval Academy, is considered one of his most eloquent and well-received of his presidency.

This speech may be a harder sell.

Jiang himself once described Tiananmen as "much ado about nothing."

Don't interfere

This week, the Chinese Embassy here stressed a message that so frustrates Americans: that China's internal policies are nobody else's business. Yu bluntly told U.S. reporters that his regime would consider the mere discussion of such subjects as Tibet or prison camps as meddling.

"We oppose any interference in China's internal affairs," said Yu, who went so far as to defend the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

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