Clinton speaks out on rights 'Certain rights are universal,' president tells Beijing students

Sharing America's views

Speech at university is broadcast live across China today

June 29, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- In a televised address to students at China's top university, President Clinton told the nation's future generation of leaders that political freedom and human rights are essential to China's success -- contradicting the position of the Chinese Communist Party.

Speaking at Beijing University, the Chinese equivalent of Harvard, Clinton said that "certain rights are universal" and that China's success lay in its people's hearts and minds.

"It is profoundly in your interest and the world's that those minds be free to reach the fullness of their potential," Clinton told an audience of more than 800 people on the campus in the capital's northwestern university district. "That is the message of our times and the mandate of the 21st century.

"I hope China will more fully embrace this mandate, for all the grandeur of your history, I believe your greatest days are ahead. This new century can be the dawn of a new China."

China's leaders have improved the living standards of many of the nation's people by developing a more market-oriented economy in the past two decades, but have rejected calls for a more open political system while severely restricting free speech and freedom of association.

As with Clinton's nationally televised news conference with Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Saturday, the significance in today's speech was not only in what Clinton said but the fact that hundreds of millions of Chinese were once again allowed to watch and hear it on national television. (Today's newspapers did not announce that the speech would be televised, so it was hard to know how many Chinese saw it.)

On Saturday, Clinton and Jiang engaged in a spirited debate on sensitive issues such as the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, free speech and the future of Tibet in a unprecedented news conference broadcast live across the country.

The last time Chinese had seen such an open discussion of taboo subjects was in the spring of 1989 when student leaders confronted then-Premier Li Peng in the Great Hall of the People, China's parliament building, which overlooks Tiananmen Square. Weeks later, Chinese leaders ordered a military crackdown on the demonstrators in which hundreds of lives were lost.

In speaking to students, Clinton was appealing to the best and brightest of China's younger generation who are seen as a great hope for gradual, peaceful change in this authoritarian country of 1.2 billion people. Many Beijing University students go on to study in the United States, and U.S. officials hope they and the tens of thousands of other Chinese students on American campuses will return home with new ideas about democracy and civil rights.

After his 30-minute address, billed by aides as the keynote speech of his nine-day tour, Clinton fielded tough questions from students on such topics as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and fears that the United States is trying to control China's rise as a world power.

One student asked if Clinton was really coming to China as a friend or was hiding other motives "behind this smile."

"I want a partnership, I'm not hiding another design behind a smile," said Clinton, drawing applause. "I want it because I think it's good for the American people. What's good for them is to have a good relationship with you."

Another student asked how Clinton would have felt if Beijing University students had protested his speech as students had last fall when Jiang spoke at Harvard. Clinton said he was used to that sort of thing in the United States and added that he would try to find out why they were protesting and ask to meet with them.

"Our critics are our friends because they show us our faults," Clinton said, quoting Benjamin Franklin. "You have been very helpful to me today."

Students who attended yesterday's speech were carefully selected, which may account for the critical nature of many of their questions. All were members of the school's Student Union and Young Communists' League.

One sophomore political science student said that he was not eligible to listen to the address in person because "I'm not politically reliable enough."

A Beijing University senior who watched on television gave Clinton's performance good marks.

"It shows his sincerity to improve the Sino-U.S. relationship," said the student, who asked that his name not be used. "Clinton accomplished one of his goals: That is, he let Chinese know about the American spirit and America's notion of freedom and democracy. Our young generation will make our own decision about what road we are going to take toward democracy and freedom."

The choice of Beijing University as an appropriate one for an address that looked forward toward warmer relations with China instead of backward toward the many years of estrangement after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. In the spring of that year, Beijing University students played a pivotal role in the demonstrations and in pressing the regime to stamp out corruption and open a free press.

Beijing University, known inChina as "Beida," has been a hotbed hTC of political activism since its founding a century ago. In recent years, though, the campus' idealistic tradition has given way to a greater pragmatism as students have focused more on making money in China's emerging market economy than reforming the country's ossified political system. It is a generational shift reflected throughout society.

In other news, a Hong Kong rights activist said four dissidents who were detained in Xian, the first stop on Clinton's China tour have been released. Clinton had called the detentions "disturbing."

The organization, known as the Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China, said Chinese authorities continued to hold another dissident in South China and had forced an activist in Shanghai to leave town in advance of Clinton's arrival this evening.

Pub Date: 6/29/98

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