In China, President Clinton proves he's the schmoozer-in-chief

July 01, 1998|By JACK W. GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- If Abe Lincoln was The Great Emancipator and Ronald Reagan was The Great Communicator, President Clinton certainly deserves to be called The Great Schmoozer considering his first days in China.

Just as he was able to talk his way past criticisms of his character in the 1992 presidential campaign and of his character and policies in his 1996 re-election effort, the smooth operator from Arkansas has already effectively silenced his naysayers about the China trip.

For this, he can thank the remarkably open opportunities to speak his mind he has received in one of the world's most notorious closed societies. After uncharacteristically buttoning his lip during the formal ceremony welcoming him in Tiananmen Square, site of the bloody student protests of 1989, Mr. Clinton has given the Chinese people an earful in other unprecedentedly open venues.

Although his strongest critics won't forget that he swallowed in silence the Chinese government's insistence that he be welcomed at the site of the 1989 fiasco, his seizing of the later remarkable opportunities to discuss human rights issues will shunt that circumstance to the background in the postmortems on the trip, barring any major rhubarb before it's over.

The live televising of the joint news conference between the U.S. president and Chinese President Jiang Zemin was not announced to the public in advance, and later newspaper and television reports of it did not include Mr. Clinton's most pointed criticisms on human rights. But the very fact that it was aired at all assured a wide dissemination, if only by word-of-mouth from those who caught the noontime event to those who didn't.

After citing areas of agreement -- including one not to target each other's nation with nuclear weapons -- Mr. Clinton pointedly brought up the Tiananmen Square repression "nine years ago [when] Chinese citizens of all ages raised their voices for democracy."

He went on: "For all our agreements, we still disagree about the meaning of what happened then. I believe and the American people believe that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong." Mr. Clinton was as categorical as he could be in that remark.

Then, characteristically, he softened the blow by owning up to U.S. human rights problems, without specifying them. "We must acknowledge the painful moments in our own history when fundamental human rights were denied," he said. "We must say that we know we still have to continue our work to advance the dignity and freedom of our own people."

In the questionandanswer period -- itself a remarkable occurrence -- Mr. Clinton spoke diplomatically in response to an inquiry to Mr. Jiang about the imprisonment of political dissidents.

"There are some people who are incarcerated now for offenses no longer on the books in China, reflecting real progress in present Chinese practice," he said, accentuating the positive. "But the question then arises, is there some way that these people might be released? Is there some procedure through which we could move? There are some people imprisoned for nonviolent activities in June of '89 [the Tiananmen Square episode]. Is there something that could be done there?"

The inquiries were Mr. Clinton at his smoothest -- making it sound as if the problem was simply a procedural one. Then, he said that he and Mr. Jiang had talked over the matter and that "there are some other practical things we discussed which I think it would be premature to ask the Chinese government to make a statement on now."

What happens in the realm of human rights in China once Mr. Clinton returns home will largely determine whether the trip is seen as a success or a failure in the long run. But his remarks on the subject there should confound his critics at home for the time being, and make his partisan Republican snipers shake their heads in chagrin at the latest deft performance of The Great Schmoozer.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/01/98

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