Students' views mixed on Clinton rights talk Some call words inspiring, others say United States should leave China alone

June 30, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- President Clinton drew mixed reviews from the students at Beijing University after his nationally broadcast talk with their colleagues.

Sitting on bunk beds eating bowls of rice, some embraced Clinton's call for greater freedom and human rights, saying his words would comfort and inspire those who dream of a democratic China.

"As we watched TV, we all applauded," said a 27-year-old graduate student from South China who declined to give his name, as many Chinese do in a country where authorities question people who talk to the foreign media. "The people who are still struggling don't feel they are alone."

Others seemed to side with the country's authoritarian leaders, saying the two nations define freedom differently. They also said they were tired of the United States telling the world's most populous country how to run its affairs.

"I still feel that Clinton is trying to impose America's values on China," said Chen Ken, an 18-year-old student from Fujian province. "Since we are so proud of our tradition and history, we don't want to accept foreign ideas. If China accepts foreign ideas, it will be by our own will, not because it's imposed on us."

The president's 30-minute speech at China's most prestigious university, followed by a half-hour of questions and answers, served as the keynote of his nine-day visit to China in which he has spoken twice to the nation in extraordinary live television broadcasts.

Both times, Clinton has tried to persuade the Chinese people and their leaders that a freer and more open China would be stronger and more competitive, not less stable as the Communist Party fears.

The mixed response at Beijing University shows that selling American political values to China's top students is not so easy. Some students said China's lengthy and turbulent history requires the nation to choose its own path as it develops and not necessarily one that embraces American concepts of human rights.

Beijing University, known in China as Beida, has traditionally been a fountain of political thought. The skepticism toward the American system illustrates a shift from nine years ago.

In 1989, Beijing University students helped lead the pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square, which invoked such symbols as the Statue of Liberty. Then, some protesters looked to the United States for guidance in overhauling China's political system.

Today, many students at Beijing University are more focused on improving their livelihoods in China's emerging market economy and seem more concerned about political stability than political reform.

While students may not have liked some of what Clinton had to say yesterday, they liked his style -- "charismatic" was the word that kept coming up.

Clinton also won praise for gracefully handling tough questions on sensitive subjects such as the future of Taiwan and saying that he would have been happy to talk with Chinese protesters at Beida, if there had been any. Clinton's comment was elicited by a question regarding Chinese President Jiang Zemin's speech at Harvard University last fall that was dogged by demonstrators.

And while some found Clinton too critical of China, one 1992 Beijing University graduate said the president was too easy on the nation's leaders.

"He did not talk about human rights in detail so as not to make the Chinese government angry," said the former student who asked that his name not be used. "He did not push hard enough."

Many students said they did not hear much new in Clinton's speech because they were already familiar with American criticisms of China's political system.

But the president captured the attention of one when he argued that freedom is necessary to maximize creativity in a society and that nations without it would pay an economic price.

"I hadn't realized that before," said a 22-year-old student who gave only his surname of Lin. "We need to conduct more dialogue to have greater understanding."

Pub Date: 6/30/98

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