Vice President Al Gore, on a visit to Beijing to shore up U.S.-Chinese relations, delivered a veiled but unmistakable appeal Wednesday for political change in China in a speech to Beijing university students.
On the second day of a visit dominated so far by news of two major contracts awarded to U.S. companies and by questions about possible campaign funding irregularities, Gore’s only major speech of the trip switched the focus to broad issues of freedom and political reform, outlining America’s vision of a future world of peace, prosperity and justice.
“Americans believe the freedom to inquire and debate and, where necessary, challenge existing institutions and habits of thought is the key to creating the world I have just described,” he told an invited audience of students at Beijing’s Qinghua University, a scientific and technological institution famed for its high standards.
“We believe the only constant in life is change. We must accept change because it is inevitable,” Gore told the audience in a country where talk of political change or challenging existing institutions is frowned upon, or worse.
“I have no particular belief that your country is going to evolve into something that looks like ours, but it is impossible to come here without realizing China is in the process of profound change and that it is on its way to becoming something very different to what it has been,” he said.
There was nothing in his comments that has not already been said by U.S. officials in Washington, including President Clinton, who earlier this year aroused the ire of Chinese officials by predicting the inevitability of political reform in China as it continues to open up economically.
Gore was also careful not to provoke his hosts by using the hot-button phrase “human rights,” the thorniest issue in U.S.-Chinese relations. He spoke instead of “human arrangements” and “the dignity of human life” and appealed to China to work with the United States in building a new future.
But the comments carried a special resonance in China, whose Communist Party leaders continue to draw a sharp distinction between the economic reforms they are aggressively promoting and the greater political liberalization the West is hoping will also result.
“We believe economic and political freedom ultimately are linked,” Gore said, stressing the key goal of the administration’s policy of engagement toward China: that dealing with China, not isolating it, is the best way to encourage greater political reform.
That is the part of U.S. policy that continues to arouse the suspicions of Chinese leaders, who regard such comments as an attempt to interfere in China’s affairs.
“As Chinese people, how can we trust the U.S. if your policy is to change China?” said Wan Guang, a foreign policy analyst with the China Center for International Studies. “Because your policy is self-contradictory, it will affect the relationship so that it can never be stable.”
The policy is also coming under criticism in the United States, where the controversy over allegations of funding irregularities involving China and a harsh review from the State Department on China’s human rights record are fueling critics on the left and right who believe Clinton has grown too soft on China.
China rewarded Gore’s visit with two plum contracts for U.S. companies Tuesday. At a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, Gore looked on as the two deals were signed, for $685 million worth of Boeing 777 jetliners and for a General Motors joint venture worth $1.57 billion.
The twin deals were trumpeted by officials traveling with Gore as positive proof that the administration’s policy of engagement with China is working.