YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Clinton, Jiang Spar Over Tibet, Tiananmen in Startling Debate

China: Broadcast live on state TV, Saturday's encounter revitalizes summit. U.S. officials say it shows effectiveness of White House policy. This morning, first family attends church in capital.


BEIJING — Even as they reached agreement on a variety of issues, President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin engaged Saturday in an unprecedented public debate on human rights, aired live to hundreds of millions of Chinese on national television, that revitalized what had begun as a problem-plagued summit.

"I think this has been quite an extraordinary day in the evolution of U.S.-China relations," declared Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Clinton's national security advisor.

Speaking of the televised exchange, he added: "It would have been unthinkable for that to happen even five years ago, perhaps even yesterday."

Ebullient Clinton administration officials immediately seized on the spectacle as evidence that their much maligned policy of engaging China is bearing fruit. But in another regard, the two leaders' exchange could also be counted as a victory for White House critics who have accused Clinton of "kowtowing" to a recalcitrant Chinese regime.

The opposition pressure probably pushed the president into remarkably outspoken comments on a range of very sensitive issues, from Tibet to political dissent and religious freedoms.

The theme of religious freedom was very much in evidence today, as the president attended Sunday morning services with his family at Beijing's largest Protestant church.

"We are a long way from home, but we felt very much at home with you here in this church," Clinton told worshipers at the Chongwenmen Church, a Methodist Episcopal congregation that was founded in 1870, decades before China became a Communist society.

"I believe our faith calls upon us to seek unity with people across the world of different races and backgrounds and creeds," said the president, who sat in the front pew with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, their daughter, Chelsea, and his mother-in-law, Dorothy Rodham.

The visit came after an especially charged Saturday, during which Clinton became the first president to appear in Tiananmen Square since the bloody army crackdown there in 1989. That very awkward moment was then followed by an extraordinary news conference that officials did not even know would be televised until less than two hours before it began in the ornate Western Hall of the Great Hall of the people.

The news conference got off to a tense start, particularly after Clinton launched into a series of direct criticisms of Chinese human rights practices. Chinese protocol generally frowns on such broadsides by visitors and views them as meddling in China's internal affairs.

Speaking, for instance, against the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed, Clinton said: "I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong."

The president, who also complained about the detention of a handful of dissidents by Chinese officials at the start of his nine-day visit, said that "for all of our agreements, we still disagree about the meaning of what happened" in 1989.

Jiang fired back that the crackdown was justified, reflecting a wide gulf between Washington and Beijing.

"Had the Chinese government not taken the resolute measures, then we could not have enjoyed the stability that we are enjoying today," Jiang asserted.

But after a few such exchanges, the tension lifted, mostly because Jiang lightened the atmosphere with a few modest witticisms and, on several occasions, actually invited Clinton to fire his best shot. By the end of the event, which lasted an hour and 10 minutes, things were relaxed enough for Clinton to suggest that Jiang and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan religious leader, get together for a friendly chat to resolve their differences.

"I have spent time with the Dalai Lama," Clinton said. "I believe him to be an honest man, and I believe if he had a conversation with President Jiang, they would like each other very much."

This was followed by nervous titters from the Chinese side and broad smiles from the American delegation, which by this point must have realized that the once-precarious summit may have been saved.

Later Saturday night, the president and other senior American officials accompanying him on the trip participated in a formal state dinner in the Great Hall and exchanged toasts.

Clinton, buoyed by the extraordinary debate earlier in the day, even rose to gleefully direct the uniformed band of the People's Liberation Army.

And today, the Clintons, briefly enjoying the role of tourists, looked forward to sightseeing at Beijing's most famous attractions, including the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, before attending a private dinner hosted by Jiang.

Significance of Debate

The significance of Saturday's debate was not simply that it was held, but that it was broadcast live to the world's most populous country, a place long accustomed to censorship in political discourse.

In this regard, it was unlike any other summit, even between longtime allies.

Los Angeles Times Articles