A Seemingly Successful Summit

The October 1997 U.S.-China summit was hailed by both Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton as a success, but for different reasons. Its implications for global stability are encouraging, but Asia’s complicated international relations means that it is still too early to break out the champagne.

From Hong Kong to Harvard: Hat trick for Jiang

For Jiang, this summit was useful in four ways. First of all, it was widely touted as his "coming-out party" as a global statesman. Significantly, this also gave him the chance to meet Clinton as an equal, which was gratifying to Chinese nationalists who are accustomed to the scorn and criticism of the U.S.

Second, it marked the completion of 1997’s "triple crown" of Chinese politics. Chinese students were taught that there were two "great events" occurring in 1997: Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty and the Chinese Communist Party’s Fifteenth Party Congress. In July, the festive Hong Kong ceremony proceeded without a hitch. Then in September at the Party Congress, Jiang succeeded in consolidating his leadership by promoting supporters, as well as by convincing his only rival to retire peacefully for the sake of Party unity. In the Chinese political zodiac, 1997 was the "year of Jiang."

Third, the summit was an opportunity for a Chinese public relations campaign to endear Jiang to the masses--both Chinese and American. The pomp and circumstance of the state dinner and South Lawn welcoming ceremony were beamed back to mainland China as evidence that America recognized China as an equal in international status. And Jiang’s visit to Philadelphia, where he met with a former teacher, an old friend, and his son’s thesis advisors, demonstrated a personal integrity highly valued in Chinese culture.

As for Americans, Jiang targeted big business, the Chinese-American and émigré communities, and, significantly, mainstream America. Guest lists at events in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and even the state dinner in Washington, D.C., were not only punctuated by the names of the heads of the largest American firms involved in China and prominent Chinese-Americans, but also the names of influential religious leaders and journalists.

More notably, the man who has been regularly derided by the American press as dull, insipid and wooden was animated and vivacious throughout his visit, keeping a smile on his face even during pointed criticisms from American politicians. He also delivered a portion of almost every speech in English. This tactic earned Jiang at least two front-page pictures in major newspapers that showed him eating lunch with distinguished Americans while laughing and smiling.

A significant failure in his American public relations campaign came when Jiang compared the Chinese Communist Party’s liberation of Tibetan serfs with Lincoln’s emancipation of black slaves. However, this may have been offset by the excitement generated in the American media when, asked about the Tiananmen incident while at Harvard, Jiang said that "we may have shortcomings and even make some mistakes in our work." This seeming departure from official accounts of Tiananmen has played extremely well in the American press, while almost certainly going unreported on the mainland.

Agreeing to disagree

Fourth, it was a chance for Jiang to lay his cards on the table. During his two-hour private meeting with President Clinton the night before the summit, Jiang almost certainly explained his philosophical position and worldview on a wide variety of issues. And in their joint press conference, Jiang had the chance to explain the Chinese government’s position on such contentious issues as human rights, Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen views with which Clinton pointedly disagreed. While some interpret this bone of contention as a sticking point that could cause relations to deteriorate, it seems unlikely that the Presidents did not discuss these issues the night before, and then agree to disagree in public in order to play to their respective domestic audiences. In Washington, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles (America’s political, economic, academic, and media capitals), Jiang proudly trumpeted his views to anyone who would listen. The fact that a Chinese president can do this, only eight years after Tiananmen, and still have the visit hailed as a success by most American observers, is dramatic testament to Jiang’s prowess.

As for Bill Clinton, he was able to use the summit in three ways. First of all, he was able to promote his policy of engagement with China, and was largely successful in forming a broad, mainstream consensus for engagement. He was only able to do this, however, in tandem with his second achievement: standing firm on the domestic hot potato of human rights. His comment at the news conference about the Chinese government’s policy on Tiananmen being on the "wrong side of history" defused rights activists’ arguments that he pandered to big business, but in fact did not substantially alter U.S. policy. His third achievement was the nearly total avoidance of the campaign finance issue. The only mention of the issue came from U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who agreed to meet with her Chinese counterpart, and said that the Chinese had agreed to cooperate in the investigation of alleged Chinese involvement in U.S. elections.

Putting it all in perspective

The implications for international relations are both encouraging and disquieting. Most heartening was evidence that the U.S.-China relationship seems mature enough to handle disagreements. The foreign policy teams of the U.S. and China have perhaps learned some lessons from earlier mistakes. The most recent dramatic breakdown in ties occurred in March 1996, when two American aircraft carrier groups responded to live People’s Liberation Army missile exercises. This reminded both leaders that, fundamentally, the U.S.-China relationship is about preventing a new Cold War from developing in the twenty-first century. Both leaders are now committed to improving relations and have begun to pitch their story to the world.

Less encouraging for U.S.-China relations are various other Asian maneuverings. During the summit, Russia and Japan held their first friendly summit in living memory. The Philippines watched the U.S.-China summit carefully for the chance to resolve its own disputes with China over the South China Sea. Iran issued denouncements of America’s attempts to further isolate it, although it presently lacks the cash to purchase anything else from the Chinese. And Taiwan, the most likely site of another Sino-American conflict, watched the summit proceedings carefully. Taiwan remains the most important issue in the U.S.-China relationship, and independent actions by the small island are an unpredictable variable in Sino-American ties. All in all, China and the U.S. now stand a better chance of improving relations than they have at any point in the past eight years--if only their friends will let them.

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