WASHINGTON — President Bush, following a cautious approach to the violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing, Thursday rejected imposition of economic sanctions on China but called on Chinese leaders to respect the rights of the student protesters.
"What I want to do is preserve the relationship" between the United States and China, Bush said at the first prime-time televised press conference of his presidency.
Seeking to walk a narrow line between his support of the demonstrating students and his desire to maintain relations with the government of the world's most populous nation, Bush proclaimed himself "still hopeful that China will come together, respecting the urge for democracy on the part of the people."
"I want them to know that I view this relationship as important, and yet I view the life of every single student as important," Bush said, explaining the conflicting pressures on him. Later, he said: "I'm trying to find a proper and prudent balance."
Bush began the news conference with no opening statement. He strode into the packed hall, gave the reporters a crisp greeting--"Welcome to the East Room. Please be seated, and we shall proceed"--and answered questions for seven minutes beyond the half-hour that had become the standard for such sessions under former President Ronald Reagan.
Appearing relaxed and confident, he allowed reporters to follow up their questions and at one point volunteered some information about his wife Barbara's health.
She's "just fine," he said.
In response to other questions, Bush:
-- Said he wants Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's efforts to restructure the Soviet system to succeed and declared he is convinced that Gorbachev is sincere in his "commitment to change and reform."
-- Insisted he has not given up on forcing Gen. Manuel A. Noriega out of power, saying international diplomatic pressures on the Panamanian strongman are still mounting.
-- Expressed sympathy for American workers and communities that suffered job losses as a result of defense budget cuts and said he hopes economic growth will generate new jobs to replace those that were lost.
But China dominated the press conference. Bush linked the need to support the student-led movement for democracy in China with his concerns that the decade-long improvement in U.S. relations with China not suffer a lasting setback.
"We have to speak out in favor of human rights," Bush declared. But he added that it is "in the interest of the U.S. to have good relations."
Military Sales Curbed
Bush cut off U.S. military sales to China on Monday and prohibited private companies from shipping arms to the Chinese.
"The position we took, aiming not at the Chinese people but at the military arrangements, was well-received around the world," Bush maintained.
"We obviously deplore the violence and the loss of life; urge restoration of order, with recognition of the rights of the people," said Bush, who served as head of the U.S. liaison mission in Beijing for one year beginning in October, 1974.
Asked what China would have to do to restore its ties with the United States to a smoother footing, Bush said: "It will take a recognition of the rights of individuals and respect for the rights of those who disagree."
"We can't have totally normal relations unless there's a recognition . . . of the validity of the students' aspirations, and I think that that will happen," the President said.
Avoids Criticism of Deng
Bush appeared to go out of his way to avoid criticizing Deng Xiaoping, the 84-year-old paramount Chinese leader who is one of the hard-liners behind the crackdown.
Pointing out that Deng had twice been "thrown out" during the 10-year Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 "because he was seen as too forward-looking," the President said: "From that experience . . . let's not jump to conclusions as to how individual leaders in China feel when we aren't sure of that."
The President's seemingly kind words about Deng, with whom he maintained contact when he served in China in the mid-1970s and whom he visited as President in February, indicated that the United States continues to hope that the reportedly ailing leader, who has not been seen publicly in recent weeks, is indeed alive, functioning and in a position even at this stage to change the course of events--almost certainly a long shot.
The President said he had sought to speak by telephone with Chinese leaders Thursday. "I tried today. . . . The line was busy. I couldn't get through. They're out," he said.
Monitoring the Lineup
Recalling his days in China, he said the U.S. Embassy staff "would tell who was winning and who was losing" by seeing which leaders stood side by side during parades and festivals.
"It's opened up much more than that," Bush said. "There have been dramatic changes since then." But he added: "In terms of our trying to figure out their internal order it is extraordinarily difficult."