Media coverage of the second U.S.-China summit presented the pluses and minuses of U.S. engagement with China. In the weeks leading up to the trip, the American public was shown a more modern China than many people had thought existed through stories that highlighted social changes. In early June, stories appeared regularly assessing the administration’s policies toward China, many of which determined that little progress had been made. Two disparate views—one that focused on China’s remarkable modernization efforts and another that criticized U.S. policy for its failure to achieve meaningful progress in areas of national interest—predominated in the media, respectively reflecting a divide that has existed for some time between news stories and commentary.
An incident that occurred just prior to the summit and received a great deal of attention was cited as an example of the Chinese government’s inflexibility and unwillingness to tolerate greater political openness. The Chinese government’s decision to bar three Radio Free Asia reporters from traveling with the president’s press corps cast a shadow on the trip that was evident in American news coverage.
Early coverage of the trip reported the activities of the president but also focused on the detention of a number of political dissidents. The tone of the rather substantial media coverage of the visit did not brighten until the two leaders held a joint press conference following their summit meeting that was aired live on television. During that address Clinton publicly stated his condemnation of the actions taken by the Chinese government in 1989 when it sent the People’s Liberation Army into Tiananmen Square to dispel a political protest. Clinton’s suggestions that people punished for their participation in that event be freed and that President Jiang Zemin meet with the Dalai Lama to discuss the future of Tibet scored high marks with the American press and public as evidenced by the many articles, editorials and commentaries on the Beijing press conference. The turn of events seemed to support the administration’s argument that engagement with China would yield positive results, and that supposition was echoed in news stories, editorials and commentaries.
Clinton’s statements and Jiang’s impromptu discussion of the campaign finance scandal and Tibet also had a very strong impact on Chinese viewers. Jiang’s decisions to allow the press conference and Clinton’s speech at Beijing University to be televised live were unprecedented in Chinese politics. Public reaction in China, as relayed by American media, ranged from excitement to skepticism that discussion of such sensitive topics would be permitted after Clinton left China. The decision to allow live broadcasts, however, greatly improved the government’s image in the U.S. American approval of greater openness in China, however, was tempered by strong public reaction to the president’s enunciation of the one-China policy and the “three nos” while in Shanghai. Newspaper commentaries and editorials characterized the statement as a quid pro quo for the live TV broadcast of the press conference and speech, leading many China-watchers to question the motives of the Chinese government.
Treatment of the news in China differed from that in the U.S. as the Chinese media emphasized the partnership of the two countries in addressing regional and global issues and Jiang’s good relationship with Clinton. Sensitive issues that were discussed, such as democracy, Taiwan, and Tibet were not mentioned in official news coverage of the summit meeting, press conference, or state dinner. While the U.S. press was critical of censorship, public opinion in China held that much of what Clinton said would spread by word-of-mouth.