Clinton gains foothold inside China's walls Breakthrough: He debates Jiang, answers questions, raises forbidden topics, gets through to people.

June 30, 1998

PRESIDENT Clinton is doing his countrymen proud in China. His triumph was made easier by the cacophony of critics putting him on the defensive for going. He also had an assist from Chinese President Jiang Zemin, basking in the consolidation of his own power as unquestioned leader of the world's most populous country.

Their debate, unrehearsed and uncensored, live on China's television Saturday, showed Mr. Clinton willing to criticize China on human rights and chastise its decision nine years ago to mow down freedom demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. The same debate showed Mr. Jiang taking his own side but sufficiently confident to allow this exchange to occur.

More important, in broaching Tibet and speaking with respect of the Dalai Lama while reiterating U.S. support for Chinese sovereignty there, Mr. Clinton allowed Mr. Jiang to hint at new offers of accommodation, seeking dialogue with the exiled religious leader.

In his televised address and response to questions from students at Beijing University, Mr. Clinton was at his best, taking tough questions from skeptics, in this case safe young proponents of the Communist Party line.

All this coincided with a massive round of signings of trade deals, mostly showing off previously announced agreements. What actually came out of all the government summitry was hidden amid the spectacular human contact with Chinese people.

Whether China will rein in the Pakistan nuclear weapons program it nurtured, whether it will hold down its massive trade surplus with the United States, whether it will continue to defend its currency as Washington wants, whether it will cooperate in bringing North Korea into harmony with neighbors, whether it will come to terms with the next leaders of Taiwan -- all went publicly unanswered as the president left Beijing.

Those are the questions at the heart of the "partnership" Mr. Clinton is trying to forge with Mr. Jiang.

China certainly has not abandoned its repression of dissidents, a few of whom were rounded up even while Mr. Clinton was in the country. But Mr. Jiang may have signaled a new flexibility on Tibet.

Mr. Clinton's trip is not over. The remainder of this presidential tour will be carefully staged theater focusing on China's future, not its past, its private sector not its government, its people not its leaders.

In terms of the long-term relationship of the United States to this huge, rapidly growing country, Mr. Clinton has advanced the national interest.

Pub Date: 6/30/98

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