Chinese Leader Urges U.S. to Seek 'Common Ground'

Di Sisani Marina - 19 ottobre 1997

Chinese Leader Urges U.S. to Seek ‘Common Ground’

Published by: World Tibet Network News Sunday, October 19, 1997

U.S. officials expect Chinese leader Jiang Zemin to press for a joint declaration pledging China and the United States to work together for “stability” in the 21st century. (File Photo/AP)

By Steven Mufson and Robert G. Kaiser

Washington Post Staff Writers

Sunday, October 19, 1997; Page A01

SHANGHAI, Preparing for an ambitious state visit to the United States that will begin next weekend, Chinese President Jiang Zemin said that he hopes to raise Chinese-American relations “to a new level.”

In a rare interview with an American newspaper, Jiang urged Americans to tolerate China’s political system and seek “common ground despite differences.” He also said China and the United States “share the responsibility for preserving world peace and stability.”

Chinese and American sources outlined a series of initiatives designed to achieve Jiang’s aim of forging a strategic partnership with the Clinton administration during the visit. Sources said China will pledge to end sales of anti-ship cruise missiles to Iran, which the United States has seen as a threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf. The sources also said this week that the two countries would sign an accord at the summit pledging coordination to avoid naval incidents at sea and that they probably would agree to implement a 1985 agreement on nuclear cooperation that would allow American companies to sell China nuclear power plants and equipment.

More broadly, the Chinese are pressing a reluctant Clinton administration to make a joint declaration affirming the common strategic interests of the two nations and pledging to work together to guarantee “stability” in the 21st century. The Chinese would like such a statement to reiterate U.S. support for “one China,” reaffirming the principle that Taiwan should someday rejoin the mainland.

In his interview here on Friday, Jiang at times read from a prepared script and at other times spoke extemporaneously, interspersing his comments with snippets of Russian and English, a line from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Chinese proverbs. He defended the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square student uprising, said Chinese leaders were on “high alert” over the U.S.-Japanese security alliance and said that under China’s market reforms the Communist Party plays a role in helping foreign investors manage labor problems.

But nine days before his visit to the United States one of his biggest tests as China’s leader Jiang strayed little from the rhetorical formulations of the past, reasserting China’s sovereignty over Tibet and Taiwan, and declaring that China must limit the scope of direct democratic participation in order to ensure stability and economic progress.

“The theory of relativity worked out by Mr. [Albert] Einstein, which is in the domain of natural science, I believe can also be applied to the political field,” Jiang said. “Both democracy and human rights are relative concepts and not absolute and general.”

These political issues could be potential flash points during Jiang’s trip, the first state visit to the United States by a Chinese president since 1985. Both Chinese and American officials have warned Jiang that the trip will be marked by human rights protests, particularly involving Tibet, and blunt questions of the sort that would not be permitted here in China.

Anxious about how the 71-year-old Jiang, an electrical engineer by training, will handle those confrontations, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) recently flew to Beijing to discuss how Jiang would respond to questions about Tibet. Today Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and U.S. Ambassador James Sasser met with Jiang and discussed human rights issues. So far, Jiang hasn’t shown signs of making any gestures prior to his visit, such as the release of jailed dissidents or softening China’s line on Tibet.

Nonetheless, Jiang hopes that his trip will smooth over the tensions of recent years and complete China’s eight-year effort to restore relations with the United States to what they had been before at least several hundred people were killed on the streets of Beijing in a bloody army crackdown on student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

“We have to seize this opportunity to promote understanding between our two countries,” Jiang said here yesterday. “No matter how telecommunications develop, they cannot replace face-to-face talks. They are very important for carrying out an exchange of feelings and sentiments.”

Other Chinese officials made clear that Beijing’s expectations of the summit are high. “We expect a lot,” said Chu Shulong, an expert on U.S. relations with the Chinese Institute of Contemporary and International Relations. “We want the leaders to enhance strategic understanding, talk about how they see the world today and into the 21st century and how the two countries can work together to make a stable world. This is what we want the most.”

China’s apparent willingness to cut off cruise missile sales to Iran and to give assurances that it has stopped all support for nuclear programs in Iran and Pakistan the latter a key to winning approval for American firms to sell China nuclear-power generating equipment are further indications of Beijing’s ambitions for improved relations with Washington.

Both presidents have made private gestures recently as part of their governments’ efforts to assure a successful visit. Earlier this month Jiang hosted Sasser and his wife for a private dinner at the Chinese leadership compound Zhongnanhai, an unprecedented gesture to an American envoy. In Washington, President Clinton and Vice President Gore made a point of dropping by during a visit by Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Huaqiu to National Security Adviser Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger. Liu was in Washington to make final preparations for Jiang’s visit.

In another gesture aimed at blunting criticism over the widening U.S. trade deficit with China, Beijing is sending a delegation on a shopping trip to the United States this week to make major purchases of American products. Aviation Supplies Corp., the agency that imports planes, said Thursday that China will buy 30 planes from Boeing Co. worth about $1.7 billion.

As he prepares to leave for the United States next Sunday, Jiang appears more dominant at home than at any time since he assumed power in 1989, after the Tiananmen Square episode. Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader at the time, installed Jiang as general secretary of the Communist Party, but at first Jiang lacked the standing or authority to seize meaningful control of China.

In the eight years since, he has steadily neutralized rivals, promoted allies and assumed new titles, and now stands apparently unchallenged atop the government, the military and the Communist Party. At a party congress last month he was able to make personnel changes that put his stamp more clearly on the leadership of all the major institutions of Chinese life.

Nevertheless, Jiang remains a relatively colorless figure, and Chinese from many walks of life express opinions of him ranging from toleration to intense dislike. “He’s okay, but we get mad at him for some of the speeches he makes to the army and the [Communist] party,” a young member of the new class of aspiring Chinese business tycoons said in Beijing last week. That implicit contempt for the rituals of official life rituals Jiang thrives on is not unusual in today’s China.

Judging by the elaborate preparations they have made for his U.S. visit, Chinese officials are hoping their president can make a favorable impression on Americans, and in the process also impress Chinese who will be following the visit from half a world away. “We try to make some PR job,” said Chu Shulong, an expert on the United States with a PhD from George Washington University. “We know this is necessary.” Whether a 71-year-old apparatchik like Jiang can conduct a successful public relations campaign in the United States remains uncertain. In his interview, the president was animated, cheerful and friendly, but the conversation was carefully structured. The Post was asked to submit questions in advance, and the president was ready with written replies, which he read word-for-word as the pre-submitted questions were posed.

He also was willing to respond to several unscripted follow-up questions, but after a few of them he announced that he would be glad to have a more informal exchange with his American visitors as long as it would be “off record,” he said in his own workmanlike English. He grinned as he spoke at a row of half a dozen aides sitting in huge, leather-upholstered armchairs in the mammoth reception room where the interview took place. It was in an official guest house on spacious, beautifully landscaped grounds on the edge of Shanghai.

That informal discussion did follow, and Jiang was more animated and engaging during it than earlier. At the end of the 65-minute exchange he agreed to let his aides decide if some of the “off record” comments could be published, and permission was subsequently given to use the most interesting of them. His remarks on Tibet and his comparison of human rights policy to Einstein’s theory of relativity came during the unscripted exchange.

Many scripts have been prepared for his U.S. visit, though Jiang has agreed to submit himself to several unscripted events, including an interview on “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” and a joint news conference with President Clinton. Chinese academics have drafted hundreds, perhaps thousands of analyses, positions and speeches on Jiang’s visit and Sino-American relations.

Some Chinese officials and advisers to the government who studied in the United States urged that Jiang avoid appearing at Harvard University for fear of a hostile reception there. But advisers to Jiang said the president insisted on speaking at the prestigious Cambridge, Mass., campus, one of several stops where aides say he knows he may encounter protests because of the large number of politically active students in the area.

A senior Western diplomat who has spent time privately with Jiang recently described him as eager to make his case to the American people, and more confident than he has been in the past.

China’s remarkable economic performance in the years he has been in power is one basis for that confidence. The country’s gross national product has grown about 140 percent since the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Urban China has been transformed in those eight years, and the boom continues. According to the mayor of Shanghai, Xu Kuangdi, 18 percent of all the construction cranes currently operating in the world are in his city. Jiang, himself former mayor and party secretary in Shanghai, was here this week to attend a national sports meet.

In the interview, Jiang invoked the economic growth of these years as one justification for the crackdown on the Tiananmen protesters. That growth would not have occurred without the stability the crackdown brought, he suggested.

The new China Jiang represents on his trip to the United States is far removed from the dreary dictatorship that Mao Zedong left to his successors 21 years ago. Urban Chinese can now eat at McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, shop at Esprit, surf the Internet, wear miniskirts and makeup, and lead independent lives almost wholly outside the domain of state and Communist Party.

Jiang plans to begin his visit to the United States with a stop in Hawaii, where he will lay a wreath at a memorial for American soldiers killed in the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. “Lessons from that incident cannot and should not be forgotten,” Jiang said. He expressed China’s lingering antipathy toward and anxiety about Japan, left over from Japan’s brutal occupation of much of China from 1937 to 1945. “We still hear occasional echoes of Japanese militarism that are inconsistent with history, so we need to be alert against it,” Jiang said.

The Pearl Harbor stop is a way for Jiang to press China’s concerns about the strategic alliance between the United States and Japan. China has become worried that the recently strengthened mutual defense pact is actually aimed at China now that the Soviet threat has disappeared.

“To be frank, we are on very high alert regarding this Japan-U.S. military treaty,” Jiang said. “And we hope that this treaty is not directed at China.” He said China also worries that the alliance changes, completed just after the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis when China fired missile tests off the coast of Taiwan just before Taiwan’s elections and 16 U.S. warships sailed to the area were directed at intervening in Taiwan.

Jiang also expressed concern about U.S. pressure on China to alter its political system. “How can the American way of elections be organized in China when we have over 1.2 billion people and more than 100 million who can’t read or write?” Jiang said. Instead, Jiang said in a theme likely to be replayed during his American journey, China’s top priority had to be economic development.

It is issues like Tibet and the possibility of embarrassing confrontations that make many Chinese government officials anxious about Jiang’s trip. With the release of a recent movie about Tibet, negative portrayals of Chinese rule in the Himalayan region are going to be playing in movie theaters during Jiang’s trip. Tibet, which Chinese troops occupied during the 1950s, is regarded by Beijing as a part of China. But many Tibetans advocate independence and believe that the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Buddhist Dalai Lama is the region’s rightful leader.

The issue seemed to be on the president’s mind when in a discussion about his fondness for Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he said: “Lincoln was a remarkable leader, particularly in

liberating the slaves in America.” He added, “When it comes to slavery in China, most of China got rid of slavery long ago, except in Tibet, where it was not until the Dalai Lama left that we

eliminated serfdom. … The impression I get is that you [Americans] are undoubtedly opposed to slavery, yet you support the Dalai Lama.”