WASHINGTON — Although Chinese President Jiang Zemin is still a largely unknown personality to many Americans, it is clear from his previous travels and his journey so far this week in the United States that this foreign visitor has a surprising number of close personal ties here.
Through the years, in fact, Jiang has shown a particular--perhaps peculiar--interest in Americana.
Jiang has crooned "When We Were Young" and danced late into the night at the San Francisco home of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). He once teamed up with Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos for a chorus of Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender."
And when former President Richard Nixon visited Beijing in 1989, Jiang jumped to his feet and recited parts of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
All this from a man who survived Mao's Cultural Revolution and thrived behind China's "bamboo curtain"?
As a child, Jiang attended the American missionary school in Shanghai. It was there that he first learned English and developed a lifelong fascination with things American.
To indulge that interest, he has organized his U.S. trip around visits to some of his favorite American historical sights: Pearl Harbor, Colonial Williamsburg, Va., and Philadelphia's Liberty Bell.
But he also is known for putting his own spin on U.S. history to try to justify his country's past and present. For instance, he has referred to Lincoln's freeing the slaves as a parallel to Chinese troops' 1950s "liberation" of Tibet, which was at the time a feudal state.
Jiang's ties to the United States also reveal an element of openness about the Chinese leader.
In sending one of his two sons, Jiang Mianheng, to graduate school at Drexel University in Philadelphia in 1986, Jiang both opened a door to future influences by American culture and values on himself and his country and built a bridge across past differences.
Through his son, Jiang has honored two men--a former professor and a former classmate--who came to the United States to escape the same Communist Revolution that brought him into China's ruling class.
"I'm the one who brought Mianheng here, because his father trusted me, I guess," said Hun H. Sun, Jiang's classmate at Shanghai's Jiaotong University engineering school and now an electrical engineering professor at Drexel.
When the men were classmates, Jiang was already a Communist revolutionary. By the time Jiang was starting his career as an upwardly mobile technocrat in the new Communist China, Sun was on his way to study in the United States. Sun eventually decided to stay in the U.S., fearful that "friends of Jiang" who were taking over the country were going to take China "downhill."
"We've gone completely different paths," Sun said.
Yet it was Jiang who reestablished contact with his old classmate. Prompted by a mutual friend who had seen Sun in the early 1980s, Jiang, then minister of electronics, sent Sun a letter in exquisite Chinese calligraphy, written in his own hand.
Sun wrote back, in English. The two men exchanged several letters, and the result of the correspondence was that Jiang sent his son to Drexel for his graduate work in electrical engineering.
This shows, Sun said, that Jiang is "open-minded."
"At that time, Jiang was already pro-American--but he wouldn't say it," Sun said.
By the time the younger Jiang had earned his doctorate from Drexel in 1991, he had established "family" relationships with Sun and Y. H. Ku, now 96, a retired University of Pennsylvania professor who taught both Jiang and Sun in Shanghai in 1947.
The younger Jiang's professors described him as a brilliant and devoted student who was also poised, self-assured and modest.
When Mianheng arrived at the school, his father was the mayor of Shanghai. When his father became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1989--after the crackdown against student protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square--federal and local law enforcement agencies were concerned about the younger Jiang's safety and wanted to give him a security detail.
But Mianheng insisted that he would rather continue his anonymous existence and hope for the best.
"He decided that he would not have any protection, he would just live his life," said professor Bruce Eisenstein, who was Jiang's department head at Drexel.
As it was, few people at Drexel knew that he was the son of one of China's top leaders.
"It was an extremely courageous thing to do," Eisenstein recalled. "I felt very nervous about the situation. Whenever I passed him in the hall, I would ask, 'How are you?' and he would say, 'Still alive.' "
"He liked to joke around a lot," Eisenstein added.
Mianheng, who was later joined in the United States by his wife and their son, is now the director of a research lab in Shanghai.
Jiang and his former classmate Sun have not seen each other since college, but Jiang asked Sun to host a gathering for him at Drexel during his state visit and to invite several of his son's professors.