THE HEART OF CHINA
June 25, 1998
Before heading to Beijing for official meetings with the Chinese government, President Clinton first stopped in the historic city of Xian. Following a background report, Margaret Warner and guests discuss everyday life in China.
MARGARET WARNER: The President's trip is built around visiting places like Xian, where the President can see how everyday Chinese are living and coping with the tremendous changes in China. The bulk of Mr. Clinton's nine-day trip, in fact, will be spent meeting with ordinary Chinese, not the country's leaders. For more on life in grassroots China we're joined by two men, who spent a lot of time there recently. Michel Oksenberg is a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University and a former National Security Council staffer in the Carter administration. He just returned from a five-week trip in China. And Li Cheng teaches Chinese Affairs at Hamilton College. Born in Shanghai, he came to the United States in 1985, but remains a Chinese citizen. He is the author of "Rediscovering China," a look at the grassroots changes there. Welcome, both of you. Mr. Li, if the President were to get an unvarnished picture of life in everyday China, what would he see?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
June 25, 1998:
A background report on the historic city of Xian.
June 24, 1998:
Three dissidents discuss U.S.-China Summit.
June 23, 1998:
NewsHour historians take a look at the rocky relationship between the U.S. and China.
June 15, 1998:
Jim Lehrer talks with Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Li Zhaoxing about President Clinton's impending visit to China.
April 27, 1998:
Phil Ponce conducts an interview with Chinese dissident Wang Dan.
April 20, 1998:
China frees Wang Dan, a participant in the Tiananmen Square demonstration.
December 10, 1997:
Wei Jingsheng discusses the situation in China.
November 21, 1997:
In his first press conference, Wei Jingsheng speaks out.
November 17, 1997:
After nearly 18 continuous years of imprisonment, China releases its leading political dissident, Wei Jingsheng.
October 29, 1997:
A discussion of the meeting between Presidents Jiang and Clinton.
October 28, 1997:
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright previews the China summit.
October 27, 1997:
The upcoming summit with China has focused attention on its president, Jiang Zemin.
October 8, 1997:
China is constructing the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, but what will be the social and environmental costs?
July 29, 1997:
The Senate considers allegations that the Chinese government tried to influence the '96 elections through illegal campaign contributions.
June 24, 1997:
The House votes to maintain China's Most Favored Nation trading status, ignoring calls to impose sanctions for human rights violations.
May 19, 1997:
President Clinton says he wants to renew China's Most Favored Nation trading status for another year.
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People's Republic of China's Embassy
LI CHENG, Hamilton College: Well, he will see tremendous changes taking place in this area, in the country, and the changes taking place in virtually every significant way in economic arena, in the economic condition, in the physical appearance, particularly in the coast of China, and in the political structure and the lifestyle of people and social and moral values. All these are changes taking place in China. So let me first say that China is a country full of energy, irony, and contradiction, and first let me mention about the economic changes. And during the reform era 178 million people got rid of poverty, and at the same time 2 percent of the Chinese population become middle class. This is a huge amount of people, 24 million people we're talking about. And let me share with you anecdote of my experience myself as childhood. I was born into a relatively rich family.
Before the Communist Revolution.
My father was industrialist before the Communist Revolution and prior to the beginning of Cultural Revolution my family had maintained a high standard of living. But a high standard of living those days meant no more than three meals per day. I still remember the first day in the kindergarten, I brought a lunch box, an orange, and I soon found that I was the only child in the 50-kids class who brought a lunch box. And the other kids just brought some steamed bread or crackers, and many didn't bring anything. I did not open that lunch box. I cannot stand everyone looking at me. I still remember later that day I told my mother, with tears in my eyes, I will never bring lunch box to school. Remember, this is an area relatively rich. It's a well-to-do neighborhood, but the parents still cannot give children enough food. But now, even poorest of family in Shanghai can provide meat and fruit. Never in history have so many people have made so much progress in a single generation as residents of Shanghai or residents of China in the coast of China, as, you know, happening, this is happening in China.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Mr. Oksenberg in here. Would you agree that there has been tremendous new prosperity for many, many Chinese?
China, a land of paradox?
MICHEL OKSENBERG, Stanford University: Yes. But when China is such a land of paradox that everything one says about it is true, and the opposite is true, it's still a land of enormous poverty. Despite the economic progress, there are huge economic challenges. The banking system overextended, with high rates of unperforming loans, non-performing loans, state-owned enterprises, as the report from Xian indicated, inefficient, high unemployment increasing without adequate social welfare for the unemployed. Over a hundred million people have left the countryside in recent years and moved to urban areas, and Li Cheng has written as eloquently about that as any. Yet, those people, even with higher wages in the urban areas than they had at home, are left without welfare benefits, their children ineligible for schools in the urban areas, and then we face other problems that we can see in China. The visitor particularly faces them, as well as China, severe environmental degradation, and so the leaders of China confront enormous problems. And the thing that I came away from this five-week trip to China thinking about President Clinton's trip to China, and in a way the enormous mismatch between the agenda which the leaders of China have for themselves in trying to move their country forward, trying to maintain a high growth rate in order to sustain social stability, and the agenda that the American people and our leaders have for China and for ourselves.
MARGARET WARNER: Meaning?
²MICHEL OKSENBERG: Well, we have an agenda of human rights. We have an agenda of righting a growing trade deficit with China. We want China swiftly to establish a legal system. We want to protect intellectual property rights. We want to make sure that the government of China rules efficiently, effectively, so that there's no inadvertent nuclear proliferation and dissemination of weapons of mass destruction by Chinese. This is an agenda which many of the issues I've just raised are important to the leaders of China also, but they aren't of the highest priority. Their highest priority is how to keep that economy growing, particularly in the context of an Asian economic recession that threatens to affect China as well.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Li, how is the Chinese government trying to cope with this big gap between some of the up and coming entrepreneurs that we saw, including in this taped piece, and those who don't seem to be able to flourish in the new climate in which there's a lot more economic opportunity but obviously a lot more risk and a lot less security?
China's progress in the political arena.
LI CHENG: I think it's a serious problem. First let me say that China also has made tremendous progress in political arena for consolidate a legal system, in division of power and more efforts on people's congress and also internal, local election. But in dealing with unemployment, the Chinese government just released data that it's at 9.2 percent, but real numbers must be, percentage must be very high, because China has, someone said, over 100 names-referring to employment-like early retirement. Some of my classmates had friends in their early 40's already retired, and I think what Chinese government can do is-
MARGARET WARNER: Your friends in the 40's-
LI CHENG: --comprehensive reform, reform in the banking system, reform in the social welfare, reform in the health care, reform in the tax and housing and many other areas. But one thing they can do is to start an infrastructure, like what happened in this country, a New Deal. They should invest more money in infrastructure, can absorb surplus rural laborers-like Professor Oksenberg said, that China has 200 million surplus rural laborers. And this is almost equal to the U.S. population, and I think this is only way to absorb them to the infrastructure project. And those laborers-rural laborers-it's certainly not a new issue. It was old issue. In the Mao era, just like poor people working for two people's jobs-but now they have freedom, they are more and more willing to move to other areas, where still they cannot find jobs. And also many of them were previously absorbed to the so-called TVE's, township and village enterprises. But TVE's now also have problems, because they want to be more technology and the capital intensive, rather than labor intensive firms. So I think infrastructure development and that the whole package, comprehensive reform, is desperately needed.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Oksenberg, Mr. Li just referred to something, though, that is another facet of the change, is it not, which is people have a lot more personal freedom. Now if they want to move, they can move somewhere, they can marry who they want. Is there a lot more personal freedom, or has that been overstated?
The limits on freedom in China.
MICHEL OKSENBERG: No. There's no question that people have a greater latitude of choice. But we must also not forget that China still has an authoritarian political system. There are limits to what people can say publicly in writing. One can't oppose the regime, itself, but there is greater freedom. And that has led to a more relaxed life in China. Still, there is an absence of a meaningful rule of law in China. There is a desire on the part of some leaders to move in that direction, but that will take a very, very long time, and this means that most people in China are still vulnerable to arbitrary rule by the local political people who control them.
MARGARET WARNER: And are you saying on the freedom front that they don't have much political freedom at all, but they have more maybe personal freedom in their personal lives, but there's a big gap there?
MICHEL OKSENBERG: Yes, they can pursue personal interest. They can draw from the political system. In the Mao era people had to affirm on a daily basis their supposed loyalty to the regime. Today people can withdraw and can have hobbies of all sorts. There is a liveliness to life in China today that was not there before, but we just had an example of the constraints on freedom too. An opera, Chinese-style opera, was planned for a show in New York. The opera cast had worked very hard in Shanghai, preparing for this opera, and now a petty bureaucrat in Shanghai has stepped forward and said this production does not meet my personal standards; we're not going to let this opportunity go abroad. There are always these reminders of constraints and we mustn't have any illusion that those constraints continue to be very much on the agenda.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Li, very briefly, because we're just about out of time, but do you see this same gap between more personal freedom but not much more political freedom?
LI CHENG: Well, first I should say that government interference in people's life has greatly decreased over the years, and there's a local saying in Shanghai goes like this, is that-it goes like this-the powerful people can do whatever they want to do. The rich people can purchase whatever they want to purchase. The ordinary people can condemn whatever they want to condemn. I call this a cover-the balance of forces.
MARGARET WARNER: I see. Well, thank you both very much.