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THE PRESIDENT IN CHINA

Two Takes on the Selling of a President

Media: Clinton's approach is open, Jiang's is controlled, but both leaders are trying to set the agenda and dictate the message.

July 02, 1998|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SHANGHAI — There's never a loss for words at the filing center for the hundreds of American reporters accompanying the president: A spokesman holds regular briefings. Transcripts of every word uttered by the leader of the free world appear on reporters' desks, still warm from the copying machine. White House flacks hover over correspondents' computers in last-minute lobbying attempts as deadlines draw near.

But across the street in the Chinese government press office, the only sound is a broadcast of the Cable News Network. Few reporters bother to come here to talk to the officials slumped on the scattered couches. Their main mission is to control information, not to give it away. In China, newspapers publish little independent reporting; television shows mostly what it is told to. After offering yet another "no comment," one official gestures toward the U.S. pressroom and says wistfully, "We have a lot to learn."

Little does he know that the White House press officers, seeing the Beijing regime's line printed verbatim in Chinese papers, are probably thinking the same thing.

President Clinton's time in China has offered a study of contrasts in political information style: Call it the Propaganda Ministry vs. the Spin Doctors. Both Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin had clear agendas for this summit and ideas to sell at home. Both are searching for the most effective way to control their message.

In China, though, their varying methods to accomplish this have raised the question about which is more persuasive: the voice of ultimate authority or messy but open debate?

While here, Clinton has sought to demonstrate the power of a soft touch in a land that has long known an iron grip. With the permission of the Chinese government, he has taken his message directly to the people, appearing live on television and radio to answer questions on everything from U.S. foreign policy to his health and exercise habits and retirement plans.

He won more than a few new fans. Chinese listeners noted that he is quick-witted and thoughtful, and--surprisingly--seemed to respond to questions rather than just repeat a canned answer.

"Clinton looks great on TV," said Shanghai accountant Xu Keqing, 32, after watching the groundbreaking live news conference with Jiang and Clinton on Saturday. "He is eloquent and direct in answering the questions. He is a fast-thinking man."

But after years of reading between the lines, those in the Chinese audience were as sharp and as skeptical as most media-savvy Americans. At Clinton's live televised speech at Beijing University, one student asked him if he was concealing a hidden agenda to contain China "behind a smile."

Clinton's way is smoothed by advance teams that check out everything from a potential "line of death"--where a would-be assassin could draw a bead on the president--to the possible story line of the day. The White House employs pollsters to gauge what people need to hear and Hollywood producers to help him tell it in a dramatic way.

"We're supposed to be invisible," one advance team member said. "We're supposed to pretend all these things just happen."

Mort Engelberg, one team member, has made 17 movies, including "Smokey and the Bandit" (parts 1, 2, and 3) and "The Big Easy." For more than five years, he has worked--unpaid--for the president, staging symbolic events and whistle-stop tours. Now he's adding Clinton's Hong Kong visit to his production credits--the final stop of the China tour and the place where Clinton will make his parting argument for what he achieved.

Jiang, by contrast, has the entire state apparatus working to control his official news--though this machine sometimes also acts to keep him in check. More conservative party members resisted the idea of a live Clinton-Jiang news conference, Chinese analysts say, preferring to keep debate in a tightly closed circle. Jiang himself is said to have pushed at the last minute to allow live coverage of Clinton's visit. But he is now seen as unlikely to continue this practice after the American president leaves.

Unlike his U.S. counterpart, when it comes to medium and message, Jiang is advised by a small group of scholars who have studied abroad and cadres from the government's Central Committee who favor pedantry to pageantry.

But before his trip to the U.S. in October, one professor's advice went beyond policy. "I told him the most important thing is that he needs to be confident," said Ding Xinghao, president of Shanghai's Assn. of American Studies, who has spent years in the United States. "His style must be relaxed and comfortable and he should have dialogues spontaneously."

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