After this background piece by Spencer Michels, Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses the President's trip to China with four prominent Chinese-Americans.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now the President's trip as seen by four Chinese-Americans. Nien Cheng is the author of "Life and Death in Shanghai," an account of her six-year imprisonment during the Chinese cultural revolution. She was born in Beijing and now lives in Washington, D.C.; Eric Liu is a former speechwriter for President Clinton and author of the "Accidential Asian," which explores what it means to be Chinese-American. He was born in the United States and is enrolled now at Harvard Law School.
Bright Sheng is a composer and conductor of classical music and a professor at the University of Michigan. He was born in Shanghai and came to the United States in 1982. He comes to us tonight from a television newsroom in Detroit. And Maxine Hong Kingston is the author of "The Woman Warrior" and "China Men," among other works. She was born in Stockton, California, and teaches English at the University of California, Berkeley. Thank you all for being with us. Nien Cheng, do you agree with what we just heard the President say, that there will be democracy in China?
NIEN CHENG, Author: Yes. I think so too. I agree with what he said. I was born in 1915. I have lived through the Chinese-many Chinese regimes: The Peking government warlord era, the Nationalist government, and the Communist government, and Mao Tse Tung. I think the present leadership is the best China ever had.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And why? What do you see, and what did you see during the trip that makes you optimistic?
NIEN CHENG: Oh, because I saw that President Jiang Zemin allowed press conference, as well as President Clinton's speech at Badah to be broadcast directly to the Chinese people. That is a big step forward. I believe President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Dur-Run Gie will gradually lead China into democracy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Go ahead, sorry.
NIEN CHENG: Maybe I won't live to see it, because I'm very old, but the President certainly will live to see it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Eric Liu, do you agree?
ERIC LIU, Author: Well, I think that, you know, the President artfully evaded the question of time frame. I think there will be something like democracy in China at some point in the future. I think one thing we have to be clear about, though, is that we use that word "democracy" in kind of a one-size-fits-all way, democracy meaning merely the practice of voting an election, it's something we might see in the President's lifetime.
But there's another piece of the puzzle too, and that is liberal constitutionalism, the rule of law, civil rights, political rights, which you can have without democracy and which you can not have even when you do have democracy. So I think that whether or not China becomes liberal in a free sense, in terms of civil rights, is another question altogether.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Bright Sheng, did what you see during the trip make you optimistic about democracy and the future in China?
BRIGHT SHENG, Composer, Conductor: I basically agree with what these other two of my colleagues said, and I feel strongly that it is coming from President Jiang. I understand, you know, this kind of broadcasting live coverage, that speech by an American president talking directly to Chinese people is the first time after the 50 years, some of the Communist regime, and I strongly believe that it is coming from Mr. Jiang not under American pressure or because it's a gesture as a host for the American president, but he truly wanted that to happen, to want to have the American president's message cross over to the Chinese people. Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Maxine Hong Kingston, what was your response to seeing that joint press conference and seeing the President directly address the Chinese people? Did you have a strong response when you saw it?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON, Author: Yes. It felt very good. There is--a communication was taking place, and I felt that the president communicated the values of democracy very well. I liked it, but right from the start he spoke about human rights as universal rights. It's a universal value for every human being. It wasn't-they talked across and through cultures. There wasn't this idea that human rights and democracy are merely western kinds of thinking. I think the Chinese and Americans agreed what we mean by democracy and what we mean by human rights. And the thought that-I think that we all agree-you just don't go into Tibet and torture nuns. I think the president of China was very open to listening to that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Are you more optimistic now? I mean, you have been to China several times. You've spoken to students at Beijing University, like the president did, as an author. You've spoken as an eminent person in China. Do you feel more optimistic after what you saw happen during this trip about democracy in China?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes. I do feel optimistic. I saw when the president went to Bada that-
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That's the university.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes. The University of Beijing-that there were guards and walls and barbed wire around the school. But it was that way before. After Tiananmen Square the schools were cordoned off, but it's still like that, but I also feel a difference in the way students spoke. I was there one year after Tiananmen Square, and the students were-I felt they were very shy, sweet, hesitant, and they asked me questions that made me think that they were not getting all the news, that they were getting propaganda. When I saw the students speak to the President, it was with a great deal of confidence. It was as if they're used to speaking up and speaking out-very challenging.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Eric Liu, I was struck in your book. You wrote that being Chinese-American in this period is to "experience an odd foreboding exhilaration." Why did you say that, and how does the trip fit into that?
ERIC LIU: It's exhilaration. It's one that is both odd and foreboding. I mean, it all comes from the sense that I have. Right now I'm just feeling so fortunate to be alive and awake and aware at a time when American power and Chinese power are the powers that really matter in the world and when these things are so much in flux. I think that that is so much part of the sense of awe, the rise of China, really highlights in a sense the role and the place that Chinese-Americans and to an extent Asian-Americans generally occupy in American life.
The foreboding comes from the same trend actually, Elizabeth, and that is that the rise of China and the rise of Asia have created a bit of anxiety, I think, in our politics and in our culture. I wouldn't say it's quite to the levels of yellow peril stereotyping and the rest. But there exists and undercurrent of anxiety about what China's rise means for America. And I think that then puts a little bit of pressure and puts the Chinese-Americans on the spot in some circumstances.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bright Sheng, do you agree with that, and do you think the President's trip made any difference in that?
NIEN CHENG: I'm delighted.
BRIGHT SHENG: Yes, I do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm sorry. Nien Cheng, I asked Bright Sheng. I'll come to you in a second.
NIEN CHENG: I'm sorry. I didn't get it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That's okay.
BRIGHT SHENG: That's all right. Yes. I certainly agree with Eric Liu's assessment, but I also feel that President Clinton did very good job this time, because he was thoughtful enough, without being offensive, and I think for Chinese people this is, you know, the way that they allowed him to mention about Tiananmen Square 10 years ago, almost 10 years ago, incident, and it was to the Chinese people directly without live coverage. That's something a great deal-for every single Chinese people living in China and outside China, for that matter. But I feel that things like that, that allowed him to speak to Chinese people but without being so offensive that will offend the Chinese government.
At the same time I think just like the Cultural Revolution, the one that was just finished, the Chinese government did not come out just say, okay, now, the Cultural Revolution was a mistake, it was wrong. They said the Cultural Revolution was over. Now, gradually, of course, after a few years they say the Cultural Revolution was-is a mistake. So I think this is a time gradually we will see certainly in the next few years a reversal of the verdict of Tiananmen Square. I'm hopeful.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Nien Chung, do you feel that windows like the one that Bright Sheng just mentioned were opened by this trip, and windows being opened in a way that's important for Chinese-Americans?
NIEN CHENG: Yes. You know, as an immigrant, we love America, and wouldn't it be a disaster if America and China have to fight each other? I can't face that, because I'm still sentimentally attached to the country in which I was born and with which I have such very close association. So I'm very happy to see better relationship and even friendship between America and China. And-
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Go ahead. I'm sorry.
NIEN CHENG: Actually, even before the President's visit, there are many Americans already working in China. There are Americans helping China to carry out these village elections, and there are two young people who work there with the Chinese, about village elections. China already started the first step towards democracy with the village elections.
Half of China's villages now can-the villagers can elect own boss, so to speak, their own official. Eventually, these will be carried to the county level and gradually, gradually to the central government. So China has already taken the first step towards democracy. It's a long road, but step by step China will get there.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Maxine Hong Kingston, do you share Eric Liu's concern that there is a tendency for stereotyping and for, you know, the dangers of looking at Chinese-Americans in a negative way as China grows more powerful and that this trip might have helped in some way?
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Well, I think that's-the trip which we all saw on television-we could see that there are a billion people out there that look like me, and in a negative way Americans can then see someone like me not recognize a fellow American. And I think that by looking elsewhere, that is not the way to understand more about America. And-
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In other words, you don't think Americans should be looking to China to understand more about Chinese-Americans.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON: Yes. That's right. To understand Chinese-Americans we need to look at ourselves and, you know, we're all very visual, and when we see somebody who looks like this, many people-I think a lot of people, most people, would say, where did you come from? And even smart people do this. I think there has to be a way of looking, so that when critics, for example, when they read my work, they won't think of it as Chinese literature but they can say, look, she's working on the great American novel. We have to be able to see ourselves and see that we look all different ways.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Eric Liu, is there anything that you wish the President had accomplished that he didn't on this trip?
ERIC LIU: Well, I think that-I mean, I would preface it by saying that I think the trip was, in general, a huge success for the president and really beneficial for the relations between the countries. But I do think, particularly given how well it all went, that hindsight shows us maybe that there are some things that he could have done a little bit more, and some areas where he could have taken a little bit more of a risk, I think certainly in the question of meeting with dissidents.
That certainly was something that I wish he had taken an effort to do. And I think even, frankly, although he's gotten a lot of credit for talking about human rights in a universal way, if you actually listen to the words that he used and to the way that he used these words in his press conference and elsewhere, there's just a hint of cultural relativism at work there. And that's something that I find a little bit worrisome. I think there's something that-
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you mean by that? I think you're disagreeing with what Maxine Hong Kingston said earlier.
ERIC LIU: No. Well, I think that the president certainly did enunciate the idea that human rights are universal. But he prefaced that enunciation with a caveat, and the caveat was that Chinese circumstances are such that it's not for Americans to judge how the Chinese go about doing things.
And I think he was trying, as he ought to, as a diplomat and as a statesman, to be sure not to offend Chinese sensibilities. But for someone with American sensibilities, myself, I do wish that he had been a little bit more forceful in his enunciation that, you know, there is no such thing as Asian values, at least Asian values define in terms of autocracy and deferral to autocracy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nien Chung, what do you think about that? Do you wish he'd been a little more forceful?
NIEN CHENG: No. I think he did just right, because he is the guest, and you really can't say something so impolite, so direct to your host. He's the guest in China. I think he did just right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much for being with us.