Chinese President Jiang Zemin rejected President Clinton’s request Wednesday to release political prisoners and refused to apologize for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Jiang’s comments overshadowed the multibillion-dollar deals that were supposed to be the centerpiece of the summit.
Asked at a news conference if he has “any regrets” about the government’s assault on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that left hundreds dead, Jiang replied the crackdown was justified because pro-democracy demonstrations had “seriously disrupted social stability and jeopardized state security.”
A country of 1.2 billion “cannot possibly” have economic and political reform without “social and political stability,” Jiang declared without apology.
Clinton, standing next to Jiang and sipping water to ward off hoarseness, gave his own stern assessment of the event.
“It should be obvious to everyone that we have a very different view of the meaning” of Tiananmen Square, Clinton said, adding that China’s “continuing reluctance to tolerate political dissent” has robbed the Communist regime of public support around the world.
The calm remarks by the 71-year-old Chinese leader at the joint news conference with Clinton followed agreement on a series of minor accords designed to showcase the “constructive strategic partnership” emerging after years of on-again, off-again tension.
Before the news conference, Clinton and Jiang had preferred to focus their public remarks on future cooperation rather than past grievances. Their official joint statement cited progress or agreement in eight areas, ranging from installation of a “hot line” between Washington and Beijing to maritime cooperation to avert accidental naval clashes.
Clinton promised to clear the way for U.S. nuclear reactors to be sold to China and said he would certify to Congress that Beijing had ceased transferring nuclear weapons-related technology to the Muslim nations of Iran and Pakistan.
The president also announced China’s $3 billion deal with Seattle-based Boeing Co. to buy at least 50 airliners, the largest sale of airplanes to China in history.
“This contract will support tens of thousands of American jobs and provide China with a modern fleet of passenger planes,” Clinton said.
The deal will slightly redress a deep imbalance in the nations’ $63.5 billion two-way trade.
The leaders reported progress - but no agreement - on Clinton’s request for China to accept mandatory cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming and on Jiang’s request for the United States to clear the way for China’s membership in the World Trade Organization.
But those accords faded into the background when Clinton and Jiang launched a series of brisk exchanges about human rights as each tried to get in the last word during their joint news conference.
Clinton and Jiang often addressed their remarks to the television cameras, rather than turning to address each other. Only the shouted appeals of photographers provoked a final ceremonial handshake at the conclusion.
“You shouldn’t in any way minimize the steep differences that still remain between us,” Clinton declared at one point.
Jiang tried to appear jovial and jocular, breaking into English on occasion. He whimsically noted the anti-China protests outside the White House when he arrived in the morning.
“Sometimes noises came into my ears,” Jiang said, adding that the protests were merely “a reflection of democracy.”
But his soothing manner failed to disguise his uncompromising words or soften his reputation as a veteran Communist party operative who came to power after Tiananmen Square.
Jiang said that he had spurned Clinton’s request to release ailing political activist Wei Jingsheng, serving a 14-year sentence, and Wang Dan, a leader of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement serving an 11-year sentence.
“To be frank with you, President Clinton discussed all these relevant issues with me,” Jiang explained, adding that he had no direct authority over the cases because he was “not the chief judge of the Supreme Court of China.”
Jiang emphasized that each nation gets to define its own “concepts on democracy” based on “the specific national situation,” adding that the United States should respect the international doctrine of “noninterference in each other’s internal affairs.”
Clinton countered: “We have profound disagreements there,” adding: “We believe the policy of the (Chinese) government is on the wrong side of history.”
But Clinton also sought to explain some of the differences between the two nations’ perspectives, at one point praising Beijing’s campaign against hunger and joblessness and adding: “We understand the importance that your own experiences and your present challenges lead you to place upon maintaining stability.”
Clinton, who plans to visit China next year, defended his day-long summit with Jiang, saying that gridlock on human rights “does not mean that this visit should not have occurred or that we don’t have a big interest in continuing to work together.”
Jiang similarly deflected questions about China’s heavy handed occupation of Tibet, an independentminded Himalayan region that seeks greater autonomy from Beijing to enable Tibetans to exercise greater religious and cultural freedom.
Tibetan activists are free to practice their Buddhist religion as long as they don’t pursue political activism that constitutes “criminal” behavior and falls “within a different framework,” Jiang said.
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