Senate and House foreign policy committees gave a parade of Chinese dissidents and U.S. human rights advocates a forum to denounce Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Tuesday, a few hours before he arrived in Washington for talks with President Clinton.
While Jiang began his day touring historic Williamsburg, Va., the 18th-century restored village where Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and others gave voice to their American revolutionary ideals, events on Capitol Hill showcased 20th-century democracy, marked by increasing tension between Clinton and key lawmakers over China policy.
Although the congressional witnesses have told their stories before, their appearance on the eve of the summit meeting gives them an official stamp, at least from the legislative branch of government.
The events sponsored by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the human rights subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee kicked off a planned week of protests against Jiang and his government’s suppression of democracy, religion and Tibetan nationalism.
Jiang arrived in Washington late Tuesday afternoon and at 9 p.m. went into a pre-summit White House meeting with Clinton, described by an administration official in advance as “small, private, substantive and informal.” The purpose was to set the tone for Wednesday’s formal talks, which both governments hope will put Sino-U.S. relations on a new and more businesslike footing after years of mutual suspicion.
“This is not a one-issue summit,” U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters Tuesday. “This is a broad-based summit which is to show the importance of having a broad-based and multifaceted relationship with a country the size and importance of China.”
The Clinton-Jiang meetings are not expected to produce electrifying breakthroughs between the two countries, which differ on a range of issues. U.S. officials view them as a chance to strengthen U.S. efforts to engage Beijing, an approach that critics assail as ineffective.
Although the engagement approach has support in Congress and among the public - especially among business-oriented groups that see the potential for profit in increased U.S.-China trade - a noisy coalition that includes liberals, conservatives, religious organizations and secular human rights groups is determined to push China’s human rights record to the forefront.
The administration maintains that the only alternative to engagement is an effort to isolate China. However, critics argue that the United States can produce changes in Chinese policy, and still avoid driving a wedge between the two governments, by speaking out more against the abuses.
“No one is more in favor of engagement with China than I am,” said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., ranking minority member of the International Relations subcommittee on international operations and human rights. “What we want is an engagement that is (consistent) with American ideals and values.”
But he heaped scorn on Clinton’s business-driven approach. He accused corporations of ignoring China’s human rights lapses on the assumption that “making deals with the devil is a long-term strategy for economic development.”
Chinese officials long have maintained that U.S. efforts to influence its policies regarding human rights is interference in its internal affairs.
“I hope Americans will understand that American democracy and freedom are not absolute concepts,” Jiang said at a news conference in Beijing before he left.