OPENING THE DIALOGUE
June 29, 1998
In two historic nationally-televised addresses, President Clinton challenged Chinese leadership on issues of human rights, Taiwan and Tibet. Tomorrow he will take calls on a radio talk-show. What impact will this visit have on life in China? Four experts debate the possibilities.
JIM LEHRER: We get four views now. Kenneth Lieberal is a professor at the University of Michigan; he was an adviser to the White House on President Clinton's trip; Bette Bao Lord is a Chinese-born chairman of Freedom House, an organization which promotes human rights, she's also a novelist and a member of the board of governors for Radio Free Asia; Pei Minxin is a Chinese citizen, he's an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, he just returned from a three-week trip to China; Xiao Qiang, also a Chinese citizen, is executive director of human rights in China, a non-profit organization, he's not allowed to return to China at the present.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
A RealAudio version of the NewsHour Backgrounder on the President's China trip is also available.
June 26, 1998:
Former U.S. diplomats discuss the President's opitions in Tiananmen Square.
Is the Clinton administration's China policy the right policy?
June 25, 1998:
A discussion on China's heartland.
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.
Browse the NewsHour's Asia Index
People's Republic of China's Embassy
JIM LEHRER: Bette Bao Lord, how important event was that news conference?
An historic event.
BETTE BAO LORD: I think it was historic. I don't know—I think both sides touched the bases that they wanted to touch, and they spoke out on the differences. We'll see whether it's going to be a home run.
JIM LEHRER: Home run. What would cause it to be a home run?
BETTE BAO LORD: If deeds follow the words. If the messenger who carried the words to China will change some of the practices of China. After all, at the same time that these speeches and these pictures of China were coming through, there were people being rounded up, visas being denied, operas not sent to the United States. So it's a—the words are there, and I'm very, very glad that the President had a chance to say those words. But I hope that it is not just being a good host to Clinton for a nine-day trip for three days of business.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Xiao, were the words right?
XIAO QIANG: "I think those victims of the family of the massacre were particularly grateful for what President said."
XIAO QIANG: The words were right. President Clinton definitely said a good thing. I think those victims of the family of the massacre were particularly grateful for what President said, because they can now say it in China, and also those people who are every day working very hard and paying the price to promote human rights and democracy and the rule of law in China struggling against the government repression policy, they really appreciate President's words. Of course, the ultimate work has to be done by these people in China, but President's message can facilitate their work, give them political space.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Pei, would you use the word historic to describe the news conference?
MINXIN PEI: Certainly, I would agree. I think it is unprecedented event in China's history for a foreign leader to address the Chinese nation live. I see three long-term consequences. It certainly has set a new standard of openness for Chinese leaders. Secondly, President Clinton has raised very sensitive issues in China, such as Tiananmen, Tibet, and human rights. And, third, news conference and his speech will certainly raise the standard of performance, political performance for Chinese leaders.The Chinese audience will hold their leaders in the future to a higher standard.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Lieberthal, do you believe that the government of China made a serious decision to change their ways in allowing this to be seen by the Chinese people? Was this a major decision on their part?
The Chinese government begins to open up.
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I think it was, and I think the answers that the three previous speakers are indicative of that, which is to say this is unprecedented. It amounts to a change in the practice of the Chinese government and the Chinese government knew that the President was going to talk about Tiananmen. Jiang Zemin, himself, brought up the sensitive issue of Tibet. He knew the president was going to say that the human rights situation in China needs improving. It would lay out American views on that. So by letting him have access to the people of China to do so without any intermediation at all, to speak directly to them over China's national television, I think marked a very significant step for it. It's one that people in China who follow these issues carefully will say amounted not only to rhetoric but to real action.
JIM LEHRER: Now, why do you think they did that, Professor Lieberthal?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I think in part that they're seeking to build a better relationship with the United States. They know that that relationship depends, in part, on Americans having greater confidence that China, itself, is changing. I think, in part, they are seeking to change themselves. There is certainly pressure from below, particularly among some very brave activists, to promote democracy in China. I think we also have to recognize that the government, itself, is trying to become more responsive to the population. It's trying to keep up with the changes that it has initiated in the economy and other areas over time. And so to some extent I think the government wanted Clinton to help move the agenda along, and certainly felt strong enough to be able to listen to that criticism directed, absolutely directly at the number one person in the Chinese Communist Party and welcomed that on national television, rather than repress it. So I think this was really a very significant set of events that we watched.
Did the Chinese government use President Clinton's trip to further their own agenda?
JIM LEHRER: Bette Bao Lord, what about that analysis, that actually the government of China was using President Clinton's visit to go where they already wanted to go?
BETTE BAO LORD: I'm not so certain. I think it wanted to hear the—to be on the same stage with President Clinton. I think they want to have the people feel pride in what they have accomplished with the economic reforms. I think we have to wait a little bit longer to see what they plan to do as far as political reforms.
JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about it, Mr. Xiao, that—do you think that the government actually was using President Clinton to help their own—to help not only get his message across but their own message as well?
XIAO QIANG: I think it's premature to say that. Let's look at other symptoms or signals from around this press conference. Right after the live speech in evening news all the sensitive text being censored and all the major newspapers nothing appeared what President Clinton said or what we just watched now, and if we look at what happened to the dissidents in Xian--in Shanghai—in Beijing—they're being harassed under the house arrest, and silenced basically. They move out from Beijing—and I think we should closely watch after President Clinton left China these people who are still speaking out being punished or not, plus the issue President Clinton raised about 2,000 counter-revolutionaries, which this crime no longer exists in China's criminal law, and the 150 elite, the Tiananmen demonstrators still in Beijing, are they going to be released? These are the questions we have to watch and we have to do more things to make it happen.
Post-President Clinton China.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Pei, you agree that the crux of this is going to happen after the President leaves, not right now, not just the words?
MINXIN PEI: Well, I think what he says certainly carries quite a bit of weight. I want to say that the Chinese government seemed to be responding to the initial criticisms of some of the mishandling of dissent soon after President Clinton's arrival, so I think that's part of the reason for giving him extraordinary access to Chinese people, was to make up for those mis-steps. I think that those speeches in themselves are not going to improve human rights in China in the short run, but in the long run I do see very positive implications.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think, Mr. Pei, that by allowing him to speak, by allowing President Clinton to speak to the people, that the government of China has put pressure on itself now in the human rights area, that will rise up from the people of China?
MINXIN PEI: No, I don't think so. I think they both see this as a technical move in order to appease some of the critics of Clinton's China policy. On the other hand, I think there are people within the Chinese government who do want to move China along in a more open direction. I think the China government today is no longer as monolithic as most people think. In my visit to China I talked to low-level government officials, intelligentsia. Many of them share the view that Tiananmen, the verdict on Tiananmen will be reversed sooner or later. The matter now, the question now is no longer whether but how and when.
The legacy of Tiananmen.
JIM LEHRER: You mean, reversed in that government of China will admit they made a terrible mistake and that was a massacre and people died?
MINXIN PEI: Yes. I think they will definitely change characterization of the movement.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Lieberthal, what do you see as the possible or the probable, or put it in any terms you would like, fallout from this, this part of the visit and the open-ended—of course followed up today by his speech to the students, this open talk about human rights and freedom and all of that?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I think first of all on Sino-US relations this is certainly legitimized and open dialogue on these sensitive issues, and we'd expect this now to be more the normal part of the relationship. But I think it is very important in both countries for laying a stronger foundation to the relationship. I also think some of the words amount to serious movement. I noted an interview that the Dalai Lama gave after watching the President's press conference. He was jubilant. He thought that the Tibetan situation moved forward; that the chances of negotiations with Beijing that might bear some fruit have been improved through the President's visit to Jiang Zemin raising this in a national press conference and to the President also following up on that. So I would agree with the others that we—you know, the world hasn't changed. I don't want to suggest differently. But I do think that this is a significant element of progress as part of building a long-term relationship that can work to the interests of both countries based on a clear and more forthright dialogue between the two countries.
JIM LEHRER: Bette Bao Lord, on President Clinton's conduct, a lot of speculation here on this program and otherwise, people giving him advice on what he should say and how he should say it. What kind of marks would you give him?
BETTE BAO LORD: "An A+ for effort."
BETTE BAO LORD: I think he has A+ for effort. I think that what the people in China will also be watching is whether this is a political move with no teeth. I think by teeth I mean there should be follow-up. We shouldn't just say that we're happy that President Clinton was able to express thoughts that the Chinese people cannot express themselves. I hope that this raises the bar for summits that other leaders going to China will also be able to have a platform in which to discuss these questions with Jiang Zemin and others.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Xiao, did the President say the right thing?
XIAO QIANG: Yes. I am certainly happy that the President of the United States enjoyed freedom of expression in China, but I'll be much happier on the day the Chinese people can enjoy same freedom. These issues cannot be openly discussed in China now, but certainly this press conference, live broadcasting to the whole of China, has a good start. But also I want to say that I would give credit to the human rights movement, a lot of critics to President Clinton's human rights policy on China before his visit. I think that helped to push him a little bit to say the right thing. Of course, President Clinton did the right thing, and I commend him for it.
JIM LEHRER: And a lot of people believed, a lot of people said, in fact—in fact, you were involved in one of the discussions that it was very unlikely that the Chinese government, that this dialogue on human rights, would ever get as open as this. Does that surprise you?
XIAO QIANG: It's a little unexpected, but is a good surprise, and I'm happy for it..
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Pei, what's your view of how the President handled this, this issue?
MINXIN PEI: I read both of his speeches, and I think these are very balanced speeches. He, on the one hand, acknowledges China's tremendous achievement in its social, economic development, and on other hand, very forcefully lays out differences with the Chinese leaders on human rights issues. So I think this is a speech that upholds American values but also gets the Chinese leaders and Chinese people some credit for what they have done in transforming their country.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Pei, some American critics of President Clinton have said—newspaper columnists and others have said that the president let the president of China pretty much dominate that news conference--we only ran a few minutes of it---it went on for 70 minutes--and that he was kind of playing second fiddle to the president of China the whole time. What was your view of that?
MINXIN PEI: I read the whole transcript. I don't think I had impressions of President Clinton—being a secondary layer on that stage. He certainly raised the issue of Tiananmen very forcefully, and that was clearly unexpected. And also President Clinton made a very skillful technical move. He gave the first question to the Chinese journalist. By so doing he completely disrupted the Chinese president's original schedule, because they originally planned to call the Chinese journalists to ask the Chinese president the first question.
A performance for two very different audiences.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Professor Lieberthal, quickly, in a word, you were involved in advising the President on what to say and do. Are you pleased?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Yes. I'm very pleased. The president had to keep in mind that he was talking to two audiences, one back in the United States, one in China. And the two audiences obviously have very different standards. I thought he did a good job of, to my mind, pushing the outer edge of the envelope, given his Chinese audience. I'm not talking about top leaders. I'm talking about the average Chinese. One last point, if I can, Jim, very quickly, and that is that we talked a little bit about follow-up on this. One of the key initiatives of this summit is a law in China initiative. I would really hope when the President gets back, the Congress would be willing to fund that at a modest level so that that can actually get off the ground. It would do a lot to help, I think, human rights and the rule of law in China over time.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Bette Bao Lord, gentlemen, thank you very much.