“In the United States, freedom of speech and assembly are considered inalienable rights; in China, they are considered criminal offenses,” Sen. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., thundered Wednesday, effectively summing up the message of an eclectic group of demonstrators protesting the visit here of Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
Although protests are planned for each day of Jiang’s U.S. trip, the primary focus of demonstrators was on two Wednesday events - an afternoon rally in Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, and an evening “stateless dinner” in a downtown hotel, a parody of the glittering state dinner that President Clinton staged in honor of the Chinese leader.
More than a dozen speakers - Republicans and Democrats from Congress, exiled Chinese dissidents, entertainers, labor leaders and representatives for the Christian right - addressed the Lafayette Park rally attended by a crowd that organizers put at 2,000, but which appeared to be somewhat smaller.
Later, several hundred people, including a sprinkling of Buddhist monks in saffron robes, gathered atop a hotel a little more than a block from the White House for the “Stateless Dinner” - actually a short buffet of hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar. The event, hosted by actor Richard Gere, a practicing Buddhist, was centered on calls for autonomy in Tibet.
Supporters of Tibet, including Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., offered toasts calling for freedom for the Himalayan territory ruled from Beijing.
Chinese officials had sought to head off the demonstrations, warning the Clinton administration that the events would poison the atmosphere for talks that both governments hope will put a new and businesslike face on Sino-American relations after years of mutual suspicion.
Certainly the words from the stage and from the audience Wednesday were intended to give offense to both Clinton and Jiang. But the presidents neither saw nor heard the demonstrators at the park, and the gathering was so orderly that rows of riot-equipped police had nothing to do but bask in the fall sunshine.
Demonstrators brought several papier-mache copies of the “goddess of freedom” statue that Chinese students rallied around in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. The Chinese government’s ruthless suppression of those pro-democracy demonstrations - hundreds of protesters were slain by troops - soured Washington-Beijing relations for much of the past eight years.
The crowd at the rally carried a variety of signs, such as a hand-lettered poster that combined several strains of protest against the policies of both governments: “The Chinese people get enough abuse from their government. They don’t need our nuclear power failures,” a reference to an agreement announced Wednesday clearing the way for U.S. companies to sell nuclear energy technology to China.
Several demonstrators carried the flag of the long-defunct government of South Vietnam, defeated during the Vietnam War by the Chinese-backed North Vietnamese. Others waved the flag of Tibetan nationalism, while still others demanded independence for Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province of China.
There was a strong undercurrent of protest against the U.S. corporations that hope to profit from closer Washington-Beijing relations.
Although almost all the speakers criticized Clinton for failing to stand up to Chinese human rights abuses, there was no real consensus on what the president should do to correct the situation. Most speakers insisted that they did not advocate isolating China.
“We want engagement with China, but we want effective engagement … based on American values, not American business,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Tong Yi, an exiled former Chinese political prisoner and onetime aide to Wei Jingsheng, probably China’s best known imprisoned dissident, accused Clinton of ignoring the plight of political prisoners.
“In entertaining Jiang Zemin in the White House, the U.S. government is delivering a slap in the face” of Wei and other prisoners of conscience, Tong said.