Chinese debate lasting impact of Clinton visit Will door to freedom open wider or close?

July 03, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- President Clinton ended his nine-day tour of China today, leaving behind a major question.

Will the door that opened for him to engage in an extraordinary public discourse about issues most sensitive to the nation's repressive regime remain open? Or will it slam shut behind him?

In two unprecedented nationally televised events -- a news conference with China's President Jiang Zemin and an address to students at Beijing University -- Clinton spoke out on such forbidden topics as Tibet, human rights and the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

By China's standards, permitting the president to speak to the nation was an astonishing gesture.

It remains to be seen what influence Clinton's words and the government's decision to broadcast them will have on the lives of China's 1.2 billion people.

Chinese journalists, dissidents and others are divided over the telecasts' significance. But if the decision to televise Clinton's words is a sign of growing liberalism in Beijing, most agree that greater freedom will only come slowly and in ways difficult to measure.

"I think the impact is tremendous," said Liu Junning, a researcher political theory and Chinese politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "It looked like a TV debate for two candidates who are running for a post. If the debate takes place between two Chinese, then China would not be far away from democracy."

Jin Zhong, editor of Open, a political magazine in Hong Kong, said he thought the broadcasts were one-time events that would have little impact.

"It's like opening the door a little bit and letting the wind of freedom breeze in a bit, but the influence won't be great," Jin said. "As China's government is not democratic, we cannot be too optimistic and we will have to wait and see."

The response of China's news organizations to the broadcasts dampened any hopes for swift change and illustrated the curious way the state-run media operate here. Not long after the telecast of the joint press conference ended Saturday, it was as though it had not really happened at all.

China Central Television (CCTV), which broadcast the event live, replayed excerpts but skipped over embarrassing questions from reporters, such as one regarding the arrest of dissidents in Xian, Clinton's first stop on his tour of China. The next morning, Chinese newspapers ran identical accounts of the press conference by Xinhua, the official government news agency, omitting the president's disapproving words.

The state-controlled Guang-ming Daily promised a full transcript the event on its second page, but delivered only a news article that referred vaguely to the debate between the two leaders that had gripped viewers less than 24 hours earlier.

"President Jiang Zemin and President Clinton answered reporters questions about human rights, Tibet, etc., and they stated their respective positions and viewpoints," Guangming Daily said.

By permitting the broadcast and then limiting news coverage of the event, Jiang sent different signals to the Chinese and foreign audiences, some media observers said. He tried to show the outside world that China is an increasingly free place while reminding the state-run news media and their readers that the government maintains firm control over information.

The regime allowed Clinton to get his message out through the live telecast, but later curtailed its dissemination through censorship. Although an estimated 800 million Chinese have access to state television, the government reduced the scope of Clinton's audience by not announcing in advance the broadcast of either the news conference or the president's address Monday to students at Beijing University.

By not publishing transcripts in the next days' newspapers, the regime kept people from passing on his comments through photocopies.

(CCTV rebroadcast only the section of Clinton's Beijing University speech in which Chinese students queried the president on such thorny issues as U.S. weapon sales to Taiwan.)

Joseph Man Chan, chairman of the journalism and communications department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the decision to censor press coverage was a significant one for a leadership that has great respect for the power of the printed word.

"They just don't want those ideas to be put into black and white at this point," he said.

Chan, though, thinks that some Chinese who saw the broadcasts will sense an opportunity to push the limits of free speech, even if not in public ways.

"In general, people will be more outspoken in their work unit and in their daily lives," he said. "If things can be debated openly on CCTV, why can't they be debated in daily life?"

Li Ming, a Beijing journalist, remains doubtful. Most people were more focused on the World Cup this week than Clinton's gospel of freedom, he said, and just because the American president publicly criticized China's leaders doesn't mean Chinese can now do the same.

"This talk is only possible for foreign guests," Li said.

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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