August 31, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a conversation with the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China, and to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: Violent anti-American protests erupted last May in at least 20 Chinese cities. In Beijing, U.S. Ambassador James Sasser was trapped in the American embassy for four days as demonstrators pelted the building with stones.
One of the more memorable images of the siege, published in dozens of American newspapers, was this picture of the ambassador peering out through shattered glass. The protesters were reacting to NATO's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The attack, which came during the Kosovo conflict, killed three Chinese citizens. The U.S. apologized, saying the bombing was a mistake, but U.S. China relations plunged to their lowest point in decades. The relationship has seesawed throughout the three and a half years that Sasser, a former Democratic Senator from Tennessee, has served as ambassador.
There have been high points. Chinese President Jiang Zemin's 1997 visit to the U.S. paved the way for President Clinton's to China in 19 8, and much talk by Clinton officials about forging a new strategic partnership with Beijing. But there have been low points as well. A month after Sasser arrived, the Chinese fired missiles in the waters off Taiwan, in an apparent attempt to intimidate the Taiwanese leadership. Washington responded by sending U.S. warships to the area. Trade relations have been rocky, too. Despite intense negotiations, Chinese Premier Zhu Ronji's visit to the U.S. earlier this year failed to nail down a deal to secure China's admission to the World Trade Organization. Criticism from Congress has been growing, too, fueled by ongoing tensions over human rights and allegations that China stole U.S. nuclear secrets.
The human rights picture itself has been mixed. Beijing has alternated between arrests and surprise releases of Chinese dissidents and pro-democracy activists. Sasser was given a rousing sendoff when he left his post on July 1st. Since then, Beijing has banned a popular spiritual movement, known as Falun Gong, and detained dozens of its leaders.
MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Sasser is with us now. Welcome, Mr. Ambassador.
JAMES SASSER: Thank you, it's a great pleasure to be here.
MARGARET WARNER: Were you surprised at the violent, anti-American protests that erupted in May?
JAMES SASSER: Oh, yes, I was, very much so. And I think even some of the Chinese leadership themselves were surprised at the anger of the people that just simply boiled over as the news arrived that the United States had mistakenly bombed their embassy in Belgrade and killed their people.
MARGARET WARNER: But now much of the analysis, at least here, was that the Chinese leadership was, if not encouraging, it certainly allowing it to take place for its own reasons, but you told the "New York Times" this week that you saw it differently.
JAMES SASSER: No, I think what occurred... we like to view China as a closed circuit, that the news of the world does not get in there. And that's not accurate. What happened with the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the news started leaking in over the Internet before the official Chinese media could deal with it. The university students in Beijing were taking it off the Internet. Others were seeing it on Hong Kong Television. And the anger started boiling up and the Chinese government, simply rather than trying to encourage it, they just simply got out in front of the crowd before it ran over them.
MARGARET WARNER: You had said that you thought... that the Chinese leadership told you they didn't realize what was happening. Do you think that's the case?
JAMES SASSER: No, they never told me they didn't realize what was happening. I think what occurred is that they did not realize the ferocity of some of these demonstrations. And they were seeing it on Chinese television, which showed just students carrying banners parading past our embassy. But, as a matter of fact, it turned into a mob. And they were throwing rocks, firebombs, and this continued for three or four days and nights.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, on the flip side, the Chinese leadership has never, at least publicly, accepted the U.S. explanation for our bombing of their embassy in Belgrade. Privately, and I know you've met with a lot of Chinese leaders privately, including President Jiang Zemin, do they really think it was deliberate?
JAMES SASSER: No, I think intellectually they know that this was not a policy decision made by the President of the United States or the National Security Council or any place high in the United States Government. But there is a sense that this was something carried out by a rogue element either in the Central Intelligence Agency or in the Department of Defense. And we've had a very, very difficult time convincing them that that's not the case.
MARGARET WARNER: So, what you're saying, it really suggests a deep distrust really on both sides.
JAMES SASSER: Well, I think there is a distrust on the part of the Chinese about not only U.S. motives but the western motives in Kosovo. And, of course, China and Russia were the only two countries that were really objecting strenuously to the NATO intervention in Kosovo. And, as a result, they felt that the bombing of their embassy could have been a result of their objections to NATO policy in Kosovo.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you or did you, in your dealings with the Chinese leadership, see the kind of deep divisions that, again, many analysts here talk about between those in the Chinese elite who want to open more to the West, and those who do not?
JAMES SASSER: Yes, I think there is a dichotomy there. And those who are in the leadership now very much, I think, want to open to the West, to continue what they call Deng Xiaoping's policies of reform and opening up. Now this reform and opening up has really deprived certain elements of the Chinese elite of some of their privileges. And so you have that group that wants to slow down the reforms. And then you still have around in certain areas some very conservative individuals who are old line Communists. Most of them are very old and most of them are not very influential, but you have this dynamic there.
MARGARET WARNER: So what are your political instincts tell you about who is going to prevail?
JAMES SASSER: Oh, I think clearly that the reformers are firmly in the driver's seat now in China. President Jiang Zemin is in a very adroit politician in the best sense of the word; that is, he knows when to compromise and when to move forward and when to maybe take a step backwards. He's the political backbone and then Premier Zhu Rongji is the economic engine in China; he is the economic thinker, and he is the one moving the economy ahead and trying to press for more reform and opening up of this Chinese economy to the United States and to the West generally.
MARGARET WARNER: So do you think that the Clinton administration mission missed a bet when Zhu Rongji was here in rejecting the trade deal and the concessions that he brought in trying to get this deal to pave the way for WTO membership?
JAMES SASSER: Now, that's a tough question to ask someone appointed ambassador to China by President Clinton. But I will say that from the foreign policy standpoint and from the trade standpoint, I think the administration would have been better advised to go ahead and close the deal with China on WTO. Now, bear in mind that from the political side of the equation, there were those around the President who were saying that if you conclude a WTO agreement with the Chinese, we simply in these in this environment can't get the Congress to approve it. And so you had that at play. But frankly, my own view is that if we could have gotten the proper support for WTO, we should have gone ahead and concluded the deal.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, another major point or point of controversy recently has been the China-Taiwan relationship. Do you think China and Taiwan are headed to military confrontation?
JAMES SASSER: No, I really do not. I think that China and Taiwan now are very, very intertwined politically ... I mean economically, not politically. Let me correct that. They are intertwined economically. There was a very excellent perspective piece by Tom Friedman in the New York Times today that laid that out very well. In the final analysis, China does not have the force projection capability at the present time to invade Taiwan. The Chinese military, although large, some have said it's the largest collection of military antiques in the world -- it simply does not have the military capability to launch a successful invasion of Taiwan.
MARGARET WARNER: You started earlier to talk about misconceptions. What do you think is the biggest, most serious miss conception that Americans have about China?
JAMES SASSER: I think many Americans, when they come to China, are astonished to see a society that seems to be open, vibrant, that's economically moving ahead, very entrepreneurial. They have a conception of a police state. And frankly, although there is authoritarian rule in China, there is still a great amount of freedom for the Chinese people. They're free to move from job to job, from city to city, to go into business if they want to, to travel abroad. This is not a police state in the classic sense. And that surprises many Americans.
MARGARET WARNER: But human rights activists both Chinese and American paint quite a different picture or say we should focus on a different part of the picture.
JAMES SASSER: Well, clearly China is not up to what the western world expects in human rights. This is a culture which is never over its 5,000-year history had a human rights concept like we in the West have had and have developed even more so over the last 150 years. But they are making progress in that regard. And the Chinese today, as they develop a middle class, as they acquire property, they are now starting to demand political rights to go with that. And we in the United States seem to equate human rights with political rights. The Chinese, many times, equate human rights with the right to a job, the right to housing, the right to medical care. And they are not that concerned about the political side of the equation.
MARGARET WARNER: Now you did say something in a Los Angeles Times interview. You see, I've been mining the files for things you've said, that you were less confident now than you used to be, however, that China was going to make a peaceful transition to democracy. Why did you y that?
JAMES SASSER: Well, what I said was that I was not as confident as I had been in times past. And the reason I was not as confident is because of this sudden blowup of emotions surrounding the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. There was sort of an explosion, almost a hysterical anger there that was frankly unexpected all the way around. And it could very well be that you could have those kinds of problems in the future that would derail the Chinese efforts or the movement of China towards a more liberal political environment. If you look at Chinese history, at least over modern times, about every thirty or forty years, there's some kind of upheaval, although now they seem to be more stable than they have been for many, many decades.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you, Mr. Ambassador and good luck in your future endeavors.
JAMES SASSER: Thank you very much.
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