April 23, 1998
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript
President Clinton announced that he would be going to China later this month. He also called on the Chinese government to change how it treats its own people. NewsHour regional commentators give their view on Clinton's upcoming trip.
JIM LEHRER: President Clinton's trip to China. He spoke of it in a speech this morning to a group of China scholars.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Thank you very much. As all of you know, I will go to China in two weeks time. It will be the first state visit by an American president this decade. I'm going because I think it's the right thing to do for our country. A stable, open, prosperous China that assumes its responsibilities for building a more peaceful world is clearly and profoundly in our interests. On that point all Americans agree. But as we all know, there is serious disagreement over how best to encourage the emergence of that kind of China. Some Americans believe we should try to isolate and contain China, because of its undemocratic system and human rights violations and in order to retard its capacity to become America's next great enemy. Some believe increased commercial dealings alone with inevitably lead to a more open, more democratic China. We have chosen a different course that I believe to be both principled and pragmatic-expanding our areas of cooperation with China while dealing forthrightly with our differences. There is a reason for this. Seeking to isolate China is clearly unworkable. Even our friends and allies around the world do not support us, or would not support us in that. We would succeed, instead, in isolating ourselves and our own policy. Most important, choosing isolation over engagement would not make the world safer. It would make it more dangerous. It would undermine rather than strengthen our efforts to foster stability in Asia. It would eliminate, not facilitate, cooperation on issues relating to weapons of mass destruction. It would hinder, not help, the cause of democracy and human rights in China. It would set back, not step up, worldwide efforts to protect the environment. It would cut off, not open up one of the world's most important markets. It would encourage the Chinese to turn inward and to act in opposition to our interests and values. China will choose its own destiny, but we can influence that choice by making the right choice ourselves, working with China, where we can, dealing directly with our differences where we must. Bringing China into the community of nations, rather than trying to shut it out is plainly the best way to advance both our interests and our values.
JIM LEHRER: One of the most debated parts of this trip to China is the arrival ceremony planned at Tiananmen Square. Here's a TV commercial running now on several networks.
SPOKESMAN: The assault on Tiananmen Square is now underway. There has been gunfire. There are people dead. There are people wounded-
COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: It was a day the whole world stopped and watched one man stand for freedom against the raw power of communism. Hundreds gave their lives standing with him. Mr. President, don't go to Tiananmen Square. Don't tarnish the sacrifice of these brave men and women, because the whole world will stop again to see if you're standing with them for freedom.
JIM LEHRER: The President had this to say about the Tiananmen Square issue today.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: When I travel to China, I will take part in an official greeting ceremony in front of the Great Hall of the People across from Tiananmen Square. I will do so because that is where the Chinese government receives visiting heads of state in government. Some have suggested I should refuse to take part in this traditional ceremony, that somehow going there would absolve the Chinese government of its responsibility for the terrible killings at Tiananmen Square nine years ago or indicate that America is no longer concerned about such conduct. They are wrong. Protocol and honoring a nation's traditional practices should not be confused with principle. China's leaders, as I have repeatedly said, can only move beyond the events of June 1989 when they recognize the reality that what the government did was wrong. Sooner or later they must do that, and perhaps, even more important, they must change course on this fundamentally important issue.
JIM LEHRER: How all of this looks now to our regional commentators: Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution; Bob Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune; Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News; and Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman; joined tonight by Jim Boyd of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Mike Barnicle is away. Bob Kittle, should the president go to Tiananmen Square?
ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: Jim, I don't think he should go to Tiananmen Square under the conditions that the Chinese government has imposed on the White House. And, in particular, I don't think that he should be there simply to review the People's Liberation Army Parade and to not even have a microphone through which he could make a statement about Tiananmen Square. I mean, what happened in Tiananmen Square nine years ago is an enduring symbol of China's brutal political repression. And if the President goes to Tiananmen Square under the rigid conditions the Chinese government has laid down, then he simply is allowing himself to be made a puppet on the stage set by the Chinese to paper over Tiananmen Square as a symbol of political repression. But beyond that, to do so without even commenting on the significance of Tiananmen Square and the awful events that occurred there in 1989 I think would send the wrong signal to China that, in fact, the United States does not care deeply about human rights and about democratic progress and political freedom and openness in China but, rather, send the message that that's something that the President merely talks about for political consumption at home and that it's not fundamental to our relationship with China, as I think it should be.
JIM LEHRER: Cynthia, how do you feel about it?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Jim, I think it would be counterproductive if the President started out his visit to China by snubbing his hosts. He has issues to take up with the Chinese government, matters in which he will try to persuade them to our point of view, and that includes nuclear issues affecting all of Asia, India, and Pakistan. So I don't think that he should snub them. This is the place where they receive all official visitors. We should certainly never forget the horrendous bloodshed at Tiananmen Square in 1989. And the President should take the first available opportunity to speak about that and to make sure that his Chinese hosts know that we have not forgotten that. But I don't think he should start out this visit with a snub.
JIM LEHRER: Would that be starting it out with a snub, Pat McGuigan?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: No, I don't think it would be a snub. I would-you don't even have to go back to 1989 to make an apt point about the diplomacy, if you will, of this. I agree with Bob on all the background and the basis for not going to Tiananmen Square, but you know, when Mr. Jung, the leader of the Communist Government of the Mainland, came to the United States, they insisted on certain things, including a state dinner at the White House, rather than a more informal affair that the White House had originally proposed. I guess you could say they played some diplomatic hardball and the White House gave in. I think this would be an issue where either Mr. Clinton should not go to Tiananmen Square, or, if he goes, he should insist on an opportunity to make some comments and then, of course, make them as a head of state, make them rationally and diplomatically but make them directly so that there can be no misunderstanding about how he feels about the history of what happened in 1989. The points that Mr. Bauer made in that advertisement are absolutely correct, and I think that most Americans would like to see our President carry that kind of a message into Beijing the way that Ronald Reagan carried a pro-democracy, pro-freedom message to Moscow in the 1980's.
JIM LEHRER: Jim Boyd, how does it look to you?
JIM BOYD, Minneapolis Star Tribune: I'm with Cynthia. With all due respect to my colleagues in Oklahoma City and San Diego, I think this is a no-brainer. If President Clinton can't go to Tiananmen Square, he shouldn't go to China. I mean, it seems to me that simple. It certainly is a snub to a people for whom face is all, a very Confucian society. And for him to set that requirement that I'm not going to go where you want me to go, I'm not going to accept your role as host is-is ridiculous, so ridiculous I think we ought to be talking about Kosovo or the marriage tax penalty, rather than this. This is a tempest in a teapot, in my opinion.
JIM LEHRER: You don't think the President has any choice? In other words, once he decided to go to China, he had to go to Tiananmen Square?
JIM BOYD: Exactly. Exactly.
JIM LEHRER: Lee Cullum, do you agree?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: No, I don't agree, Jim. I think it's a mistake for the President to go to Tiananmen Square. You know, he said in his speech today to the China scholars that he would rather make a difference than make a symbolic point, and that protocol and principle are not the same thing. But, in fact, appearances do matter, and they do have impact, and our protocol and our symbols should reflect our principles. So while I think he's absolutely right to make this trip to China, I think Tiananmen Square is not the place to begin the trip.
JIM LEHRER: But what about Jim Boyd's point that he doesn't have any choice-you cannot go to China and not go to Tiananmen Square?
LEE CULLUM: Well, It's a very good point. I understand the point, but I think surely some other arrangement could be made. You know, we don't insist that we greet visitors at Kent State. And I think surely if the Chinese really want this visit-and I think they do-some other ceremonial place could surely be found for an appropriate beginning.
JIM LEHRER: Jim Boyd.
JIM BOYD: Actually, you and I took each other's pictures in Tiananmen Square in 1993. We didn't stay away from it, because in 1989, it was-it was the scene of a ghastly-
JIM LEHRER: You were over there-you were on some kind of press trip?
JIM BOYD: We went together on tour actually.
JIM LEHRER: I see.
LEE CULLUM: It was the National Conference of Editorial Writers.
JIM LEHRER: I see.
JIM BOYD: We didn't stay away from it because-because it was the scene of this ghastly military action against the students. And I don't think President Clinton should either. In fact, we can even reframe it. It's also the place where the Goddess of Democracy was placed by the students, so President Clinton is being welcomed in this square where the students did these wonderful things. But, more than that, Clinton has got his priorities right. China is an emerging superpower. It will be the most important partner with the United States, ensuring a stable Asia in the next century, and perhaps even have a global role with the United States. And I think President Clinton rightly is deciding that China's role in the world-like it or not-is more important than what happened in 1989. And I don't think he has to apologize for that.
JIM LEHRER: Bob-yes, go ahead. Finish.
JIM BOYD: Well, it's just that-it's just that President Clinton's first responsibility isn't for the people of China. It's for the people of the United States.
JIM LEHRER: What about that point, Bob Kittle, that the President has got his priorities straight, whatever everybody thinks about whether he should go to Tiananmen Square or not?
ROBERT KITTLE: Well, certainly the priority should be on maintaining the constructed dialogue with China, but the right kind of constructed dialogue, one that sends the signal that the United States does care about human rights and democracy and political freedom. I mean, the reality is, with all due respect to Jim, and to Lee, two editorial writers in Tiananmen Square do no carry the same weight as the President of the United States. As the President, he embodies the ideals of America, and, therefore, what he does in Tiananmen Square has enormous import. And if he simply goes there without remarking on the massacre that occurred, without making a statement in support of democracy and political freedom, then I think he's sent the wrong message to China, he's set back the cause of democratic reform in China, and so yes, he needs to be in China; he needs to be engaged in the dialogue; he shouldn't allow himself to be manipulated by the Chinese government to basically say, look, what happened in Tiananmen Square is ancient history; we don't have to worry about it. And, unfortunately, I think that's the symbol that the President sends to the Chinese and to the rest of the world if he appears in Tiananmen Square without so much as a microphone made available to him so that he can speak his mind. And he's the President of the United States. He's a big guy. He could set the terms here. He doesn't have to comply meekly with whatever the Chinese government requests.
JIM LEHRER: Cynthia, do you think he could do what he wanted to do, whatever the Chinese government wanted him to do?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: I think he could do whatever he wanted to do, but I don't think he would accomplish what he wants to accomplish by going to Thailand. I agree with Jim; I think if he's going to do that, he might as well stay at home. After all, remember what's going on here, what is more important, the symbol of speaking out against human rights abuses in China or the practical matters that the President is trying to accomplish on his trip? Most of the great issues of war and peace, Jim, have been settled behind closed doors, so I fully expect that the President will have some very stern conversations with the Chinese government about human rights abuses. But I don't see that it would be productive to make any great demonstration for symbolic purposes at Tiananmen Square, or to refuse to go there. Again, there are much-there are some other very important issues here, including these nuclear tests that have been conducted in Asia. We want China to be a player at the table, to help stabilize things there, to help convince India and Pakistan to back off. President Clinton needs to be very persuasive, and I don't think he can be persuasive if he's going to start off insulting the host.
JIM LEHRER: Pat McGuigan, what about the point that Cynthia made and Jim Boyd made it earlier, essentially this isn't really a very important issue at all in the context of what's going on in the world?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: I couldn't disagree more strongly. I think that Bob has this right. I agree with most of the remarks that Lee had to offer. The President of the United States, you know, again, if we're looking at saving face and symmetry here, I reiterate the point I made earlier. They had certain things that they insisted on, and this is the president of our country. I've been very critical of him at times, but I admired when he stood ten feet away from Mr. Jung in the White House, when Mr. Jung visited here, and made the man quite uncomfortable with his comments about Tiananmen Square and other issues. To go to Tiananmen Square and to remain silent is to make a mistake as the leader of the United States of America and as a representative of all the things that this country stands for, and I just think that my friends on the panel who take the contrary view are underestimating the importance of symbols. You know, Ronald Reagan never elevated process above principle. He always kept his eyes on the prize, if you will. And in this case the prize for Mr. Clinton is the opportunity to send a message to the people of China, if not to their government, about what this country values.
JIM LEHRER: Jim Boyd.
JIM BOYD: I think that he proved his own point. In Washington, Clinton made the right statements. President Clinton is able to distinguish between venues, if you want, or circumstances. And this is not the right place. And I think that President Clinton, who often has been criticized for having an on and off again policy toward China, deserves a great deal of praise for being very steady, very focused for the last six weeks, while Congress particularly has its knickers in a twist about missiles and this and that and contributions and all the rest of it. The President has been able to keep, I think, do exactly what the last speaker said, keep his eye precisely on the goal, which is to be engaged with China, which is, as Cynthia said, to talk to China strongly about these issues in the appropriate way, as the previous speaker said, he did at the White House last fall. But this is not the right place.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, Jim Boyd and others, thank you all very much.