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Clinton Had Better Book U.S. On A Slower Boat To China

Mon., Dec. 16, 1996

Human rights policy or not, China is positioning itself for a cozy relationship with the United States, thanks in part to both countries ostensibly wanting to bury the hatchet.

I couldn’t help but think about the enigmatic overtures and ironies between Washington and Beijing the other day as President Clinton hopscotched along the Pacific Rim and at one point met with China’s president. Meanwhile, Chinese officials laid groundwork with Secretary of State Warren Christopher for closer ties and possible limited sales of nuclear technology by the communist government.

As if this move were not eye-popping enough, U.S. Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, disclosed that in a meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, China had indicated that it wants in on a possible joint venture with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, something along the lines of an international space station.

These overtures may yet fizzle. But you’ve got to hand it to the Chinese, given Bill Clinton’s stinging criticism of the Bush administration in 1992 for its pro-China stand and the Clinton administration’s inability since then to force the Chinese to embrace some sort of acceptable human rights initiative.

All of this has occurred against seemingly insurmountable odds, on the heels of the Tiananmen Square uprising seven years ago when China moved to snuff out a pro-democracy movement by dissidents and students.

China may indeed come off as a more user-friendly country these days. But its versions of Russia’s “glasnost” and “perestroika” still have some distance to go. And that’s not just due to the fact that China’s new market economy has not completely taken hold.

Several weeks ago, I was one of eight U.S. journalists and journalism educators allowed to visit several major Chinese cities for a view of the country’s media and the new “openness” policy begun in 1979.

What we saw during our two-week sojourn was, yes, a country concerned with its international image. But what we also saw while visiting Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai - cities with a combined population of nearly 32 million people - was a socialist government with its guard still up, as well as a country still virtually light-years away from having anything closely resembling a free press.

If Beijing has become more tolerant about what its media can or cannot do (a point Chinese officials tried repeatedly to drive home to us during our China stay), it’s still a well-kept secret.

Ironically - and perhaps much to the Chinese government’s embarrassment during our visit - two of its most celebrated dissidents from the ‘89 Tiananmen protests, Wang Dan and Liu Xiabo, were being investigated and pursued on possible subversion charges for continuing to speak out against the government.

Wang, 27, already had served 3-1/2 years for leading the Tiananmen Square protests. With a trial that concluded a week after we left, he has been slapped with an additional 11-year prison term for official subversion. Liu, meanwhile, remains at large - reportedly holed up somewhere in the United States.

So much for openness.

The stories of the two Chinese dissidents were not carried by any of the country’s 300 or so news publications or broadcast media. Our delegation learned of the dissidents’ plight by reading the Hong Kong-based South China Post Daily, along with the International Herald-Tribune, a collaborative effort of The New York Times and The Washington Post. Articles about Wang and Liu also appeared in the international edition of USA Today, which, along with the Herald-Tribune, was rationed to a single copy at our Shanghai and Xi’an hotels.

A closer relationship with a budding new China?

The Clinton administration would be wise to examine Beijing’s real human rights position before making any further overtures - or concessions.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Fred Davis Washington State University

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