Jiang wants to reach out to Americans during visit Chinese leader says trip will foster understanding

October 26, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- In a dress rehearsal for his summit in the United States this week, China's President Jiang Zemin met with U.S. reporters yesterday for a rare news conference in which he spoke about human rights, voiced confidence in Hong Kong's faltering stock market and practiced a little English.

Jiang said nothing new about the many issues that divide the two nations, such as Taiwan, Tibet and the Tiananmen Square massacre, but he gave a glimpse of the kind of image he hopes to project to a skeptical U.S. public during his eight-day tour.

The Chinese leader -- who often seems wooden at official events -- departed at times from his prepared notes, occasionally laughing and smiling and generally seeming more animated. He said he thought his trip would help Americans better understand him and recognize that China and the United States share some values.

"To see it once is better than to hear about it 100 times," Jiang said, quoting an old Chinese saying. "I believe through my coming visit and also the contacts that I will have with the different walks of life of the American people, this misgiving will be gradually resolved."

Jiang, 71, arrives today in Honolulu on the first leg of a trip that will take him to Williamsburg, Va., Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Los Angeles. His visit, which will include a state dinner and meetings with congressional leaders, is the first by a Chinese head of state since 1985.

President Clinton has said that trade, human rights, arms control and peace between North and South Korea are on the summit agenda.

The issue of a reported agreement for China to end nuclear exports to Iran -- which would clear the way for U.S. companies to sell reactors to China -- did not come up at the news conference.

The summit marks the re-establishment of closer relations between two of the world's most powerful nations since their falling-out after the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989.

Groups supporting human and religious rights and a free Tibet plan to stage demonstrations during Jiang's visit. Yesterday, he seemed untroubled by the prospect of the sort of protests that would not be allowed here.

"It will be up to the United States to handle these events," he

said. "President Clinton has [extended] an invitation to me for this state visit. Therefore I believe that he would not like to welcome me in the form of demonstrations."

Jiang invited Beijing-based U.S. reporters yesterday to the Great Hall of the People, China's parliament building on the west side ++ of Tiananmen Square. Jiang rarely holds news conferences with U.S. reporters.

When he does, he usually takes only a few questions, which have been vetted by the government.

Yesterday, though, U.S. journalists asked whatever they wanted, and Jiang spent more than an hour giving answers. Most responses followed the government line, and the session was clearly a practice run for dealing with the Washington press corps and students at Harvard University, where he will visit Saturday.

Jiang seemed more relaxed than he has at other public appearances and even walked up to a U.S. reporter afterward to clarify an answer, speaking in clear, though not quite perfect, English.

Referring to U.S. perceptions of the Chinese government, he told the reporter, "There may be some misunderstandings between us. If we have direct contacts, we'll solve this problem at once."

In anticipation of the trip, Jiang has been practicing his English. He first studied it in school when he was 10 years old and downplayed his skills yesterday.

While Americans may appreciate his efforts to speak their language, many won't like at least some of what he has to say.

On the issue of human rights, for instance, Jiang described the jailing of prominent dissidents Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng as criminal, not political, matters.

When the topic turned to Tibet, Jiang said China had liberated it from feudal serfdom as the United States had similarly freed the slaves following the Civil War.

Critics maintain that since China's violent takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, it has run Tibet as an occupied territory while trying to stamp out much of its rich Buddhist culture.

On the subject of expanded democracy in China, which now has direct elections at the village level, Jiang noted that more than 100 million of the nation's 1.2 billion people are illiterate and that there are vast economic disparities across the country.

Jiang spent most of the news conference focusing on his trip, but departed at one point to calm concerns about Thursday's precipitous drop in the Hong Kong stock market.

Sparked by Southeast Asia's financial crisis, Hong Kong's benchmark Hang Seng Index lost 10 percent of its value and sent other markets down around the world before rallying Friday.

"I believe the ups and downs of the securities market is only a natural phenomenon and the Chinese economy, including the economy of Hong Kong, is stable," said Jiang.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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