A rare foreign exchange U.S. and Chinese presidents square off on sensitive topics

Rights, free speech discussed

Beijing's decision to televise debate takes nation by surprise

June 28, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- It was an extraordinary display of openness and candor for one of the world's most repressive regimes.

There was China's President Jiang Zemin debating President Bill Clinton over some of China's most sensitive issues, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre -- not in private, but on live television.

During a 70-minute exchange yesterday, the two leaders sparred over free speech, human rights and the future of Tibet as millions of Chinese watched at home, many surprised by what they were seeing and hearing -- all the more so because the live broadcast was not announced in advance.

There was the American president telling the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party that the regime in Beijing was "wrong" to have shot student protesters who filled Tiananmen Square in 1989 demanding democracy.

There he was, urging Jiang to show greater respect for human rights and free speech or suffer the consequences in an international economy based on ideas and the open exchange of information.

To fully appreciate the magnitude of the event, consider that if Clinton were Chinese and had shouted some of these things on the streets of Beijing yesterday, he would almost certainly have been arrested.

"I was very surprised," said filmmaker Chen Yu, 27, who learned of the broadcast only when a friend called and woke him from a nap. "This is the most open press conference I've ever watched."

Jiang seemed to agree. Despite his differences with Clinton, "we still can have very friendly exchanges of views and discussions," the Chinese president said. "And I think that is democracy."

L When it was all over, at least one questioned remained: Why?

Why did a notoriously sensitive regime that holds some 2,000 political prisoners allow Clinton to criticize it publicly about issues on which it is most vulnerable?

The Chinese Foreign Ministry acted as if no one should be surprised.

"This has shown that China has adopted an open attitude and would like people to know the different views of different sides," said Zhu Bangzhao, a foreign ministry spokesman. "China is more and more open to the outside world, and people will have their own judgments with regard to different points of view."

The full reason is probably more complex and might have to do with the way Clinton's nine-day visit to China, the most controversial foreign journey of his presidency, began.

Before the president arrived Thursday night in the ancient Chinese capital, Xian, police detained several dissidents, creating a huge embarrassment for Clinton.

Dogged by reporters' questions, Clinton chided the Chinese government for not being more tolerant.

Yesterday morning, Clinton attended a welcoming ceremony overlooking Tiananmen Square. His decision to visit the site of the 1989 crackdown has drawn harsh criticism back home because of the perception that it signaled U.S. acquiescence on the issue of human rights.

White House press secretary Mike McCurry said yesterday that the United States had urged the Chinese to provide as broad an audience as possible for the news conference.

No negotiations

The Chinese told the administration about plans for a live broadcast after the welcoming ceremony. McCurry said there were no negotiations and the Chinese gave no reason for the apparent last-minute decision.

Jiang Qishen, a Beijing free-lance writer, said he thought Clinton had pressured the Chinese to show the news conference because American networks had done so when Jiang visited Washington last fall.

"I don't think that the Chinese government wanted to broadcast live in the first place," said Jiang, 49. "This does not show the Chinese government is beginning to be more open."

However, Jiang added: "If I am wrong, I welcome this dramatic change cordially."

Many other Chinese saw the broadcast as a hopeful sign of greater tolerance.

"Clinton's speech carries on the American spirit, which is something we are after," said dissident Lin Mu, 70, who served as a Communist Party official in Shaanxi Province in the 1960s. "That is China's future."

The news conference was held in the Great Hall of the People, China's parliament building.

Despite the free speech permitted inside, there continued to be stern reminders of its limits outside: Police detained an American television reporter for an hour and a half for asking citizens what they thought of Clinton's visit.

And it was unclear how many people had seen the news conference, which was not publicized in advance.

China Central Television, the national network that broadcast the event, is available to most of the nation's 1.2 billion people.

A few expected it

While many Chinese were surprised by the broadcast, a few said they had expected it.

Dissident Xu Wenli, who served a long jail term for his participation in the Democracy Wall movement of the late 1970s, left his television on all day.

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