BEIJING -- Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji arrives today in the United States for a nine-day state visit that China scholar David Shambaugh of George Washington University compares to "walking into a snake pit."
However, at least one U.S. politician -- Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes -- thinks Zhu will do just fine.
The Maryland Democrat met Zhu during a six-day trip to China last week. Like many, he came away impressed with the premier's intellect, open-mindedness and command of the issues.
"He comes across as young and energetic," Sarbanes said of the 70-year-old Zhu. "My guess is, he'll do fairly well."
Zhu's trip, which includes stops in Los Angeles, Washington, Denver, Chicago, New York and Boston, comes at a stormy time in Sino-U.S. relations.
A crackdown on democracy advocates and accusations that Beijing stole U.S. nuclear secrets have reignited fears in Washington that China might become a threat to the United States. Anger over the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and anti-China sentiment in Congress led Chinese officials to consider canceling the trip last week.
The various conflicts have soured what had been an improving relationship, and one that many believe will be the most important in the world in the coming years.
Sarbanes traveled to China as a part of a Senate delegation led by the nonprofit Aspen Institute of Aspen, Colo. He said the educational trip did nothing to allay his concerns about such issues as human rights, China's huge trade deficit with the United States or the accusations of spying.
But his description of China at the end of his visit differed markedly from the heated rhetoric often heard these days on Capitol Hill. As he traveled from Beijing to the Yangtze River's Three Gorges Dam and on to Shanghai, Sarbanes said, he saw a freer, more developed nation where the leaders seemed most concerned about solving their considerable domestic problems. These include growing unemployment and labor unrest brought on by the regime's shift from a command economy to a more market-oriented one.
In Shanghai, Sarbanes was struck by the city's great energy and the fashionably dressed young people. He also was impressed by the glass-and-steel towers that have risen out of swampland -- though he noted that some buildings were vacant due to a slowdown in the economy.
The Chinese scholars he met spoke openly of the need for the government to more quickly embrace human rights while acknowledging that the leadership has a legitimate fear of chaos.
"Perhaps the biggest thing that's not fully appreciated is how much they are transforming the nature of their society," said Sarbanes, who previously visited China in 1979 and 1985. "Fourteen years ago, I would have said: `I don't know how they are going to modernize and bring themselves into the 20th century.' "
The relationship with China is one of the trickiest for the United States. The Clinton administration has spent the past couple of years trying to work with China on various points of mutual interest, such as peace on the Korean peninsula and controlling ballistic missile proliferation.
But differences have reappeared and threatened to disrupt the fragile rapprochement. In recent months, China's crackdown on its first opposition political party and charges that Chinese stole nuclear secrets have angered U.S. lawmakers and confused Americans, who aren't quite sure whether China is a friend or a foe.
U.S. officials' talk of deploying a missile defense umbrella for Taiwan, which Beijing views as a rebel province, has struck at China's paramount foreign policy objective: reunification with the island.
Sarbanes, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he generally supports the Clinton administration's policy of engaging China, but emphasized that the United States should not compromise its core beliefs.
For instance, human rights -- a driving force after the 1989 massacre of democracy demonstrators near Tiananmen Square -- is no longer a decisive issue in U.S.-China relations. In a recent press conference, Zhu even suggested that discussions about human rights between Chinese and Western leaders had become ritualized.
"It seems that without mentioning the question of human rights they would find it difficult to justify themselves after going back," Zhu said.
Sarbanes said such an approach would be a big mistake.
"I think we need to make sure that the human rights issues are not only raised, but are raised and pressed so that they are meaningful," he said. "We need to press them very hard to shift course."
Sarbanes spent two days at the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest and most controversial. Government leaders say the dam will be a great flood-prevention, power-generation project. Critics say it is an environmental disaster in the making.
Even China's official news media have raised questions about the government's ability to pay for the estimated $25 billion project and relocate the 1.8 million people affected by it. Sarbanes, though, declined to give an opinion, saying the United States had no investment in the dam.