The historic nine-day visit of President Bill Clinton to China was the first in nearly a decade for a U.S. president, signaling the full re-normalization of diplomatic ties after the Tiananmen incident in 1989. Building on agreements reached at the last summit in October 1997, the U.S. and China strengthened their partnership and increased their dialogue on important issues. During his trip President Clinton had a chance to interact with the people of China through the live broadcast of a press conference with President Jiang Zemin, a speech he delivered at Beijing University, and his participation in a talk-radio show in Shanghai, as well as the several roundtable discussions he held at each stop. The summit also provided the opportunity for Americans to get a first-hand look at life in China today in all of its complexity and depth.
In anticipation of a welcoming ceremony for President Clinton at the Great Hall of the People, the issue of Tiananmen Square as the site of the 1989 incident and as a national symbol of China was debated in both the United States and China. In the United States, President Clinton faced pressure from members of Congress and human rights groups who urged him not to attend a ceremony at Tiananmen Square, saying that to do so would lend legitimacy to a cruel government. In China, President Jiang and other high-level leaders were urged in a letter written by former party leader Zhao Ziyang to reverse their decision on Tiananmen and free people jailed for their participation in the political protest that occurred in the square in 1989.
After visiting Xian, the capital of the first Chinese dynasty, President Clinton arrived in Beijing on June 26 for a summit meeting with President Jiang the following day. President Jiang formally welcomed Clinton with a fifteen-minute, red-carpet ceremony at the East Plaza of the Great Hall of the People on the edge of Tiananmen Square, at which President Clinton received a twenty-one gun salute while the American national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, and the Chinese national anthem, the March of the Volunteers, were played. Presidents Jiang and Clinton then inspected a 150-member Honor Guard that represented three arms of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and proceeded into the Great Hall of the People.
The two presidents held a two-and-a-half hour summit meeting followed by a live press conference. They discussed a wide range of topics concerning bilateral ties and international and regional issues. Building on agreements reached during the last summit meeting, the two countries reached consensus in several areas, including national and regional defense, environmental protection, and the rule of law.
During their meeting President Jiang told Clinton that their exchange of visits demonstrated that U.S.-China relations had entered “a new stage of development.” In his role as a statesman, Jiang reiterated China’s position on Taiwan and underscored its importance in the bilateral relationship. In response, Clinton restated the United States’ commitment to the one-China policy.
In the area of human rights, which is of great importance to the United States, the leaders agreed to open a dialogue and inaugurate a forum of non-governmental organizations. In addition, the two leaders discussed the military situations on the Korean peninsula and in South Asia extensively and issued a joint statement on the latter.
Immediately following the summit, the two leaders participated in a news conference that has been heralded as unprecedented and ground-breaking in both countries. This was the first live press conference for Jiang, who made the decision to allow the broadcast moments before it began.
In his brief remarks at the beginning of the news conference Jiang struck the theme that China and the U.S. are partners and not adversaries. He announced some of the agreements reached during the summit meeting and concluded by reiterating the centrality of the Taiwan issue to U.S.-China relations.
During his comments, President Clinton re-stated America’s one-China policy to President Jiang and urged him to re-establish a dialogue with the Dalai Lama about Tibet. In his discussion of human rights, Clinton broke a nine-year silence in China by stating that he and the American people believe that “the use of force and tragic loss of life [in Tiananmen Square in 1989] was wrong.” While noting China’s historical concern about instability, he made the argument that high levels of personal freedom would be integral to the maintenance of stability in the coming global information age.
Taking questions from the press, the two presidents discussed economic stability in Asia, dissidents in China, the detargeting of missiles, human rights, and Tibetan autonomy. News commentary on the conference praised President Jiang for tolerating a greater level of debate while maintaining his composure than any other leader of China ever had. In a surprising move, he discussed the Tiananmen incident, allegations that China attempted to influence the American political system through election donations, and the issue of Tibet openly and candidly.
President Clinton was also given high marks by the American press and public for suggesting that people detained for participation in the Tiananmen incident should be released and that President Jiang meet with the Dalai Lama. Several members of the Clinton administration also heavily praised President Jiang for allowing a live broadcast of their debate of these sensitive topics. His decision has had a positive impact on China’s image in the United States and demonstrated that the Clinton Administration’s engagement policy yields results.
That evening President Jiang and his wife, Wang Yeping, hosted a state dinner for President and Mrs. Clinton in the Great Hall of the People. During cocktails President Jiang introduced President Clinton to members of the standing committee of the Politburo, the decision-making body of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including Li Peng, Chairman of the National People’s Congress.
As the dinner for 250 commenced, President Jiang welcomed the Clintons and their delegation with a brief speech. The good rapport between the two leaders was evident in their toasts to each other and their taking turns conducting the Military Band of the People’s Liberation Army that performs for all state functions. Toasting the president and first lady, President Jiang praised the relationship for being able to accommodate differences between the two countries while moving forward in areas of common interests, and noted that, “What is important is that the common interests between the two outweigh their differences.”
In his toast to President Jiang, President Clinton quoted a famous Chinese sage, Mencius, who said, “Be not afraid of growing slowly; be only afraid of standing still.”
The state dinner brought to a conclusion a very successful day for each president, one in which each was able to advance national interests and answer domestic critics. American commentary on the official phase of the president’s trip was generally positive, based largely on the president’s ability to explain America’s stance on important issues directly to the Chinese public through the live broadcast of the press conference.
Critics of the trip, however, stressed that the summit did not achieve any substantive progress in key areas such as China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the opening of important markets in China to American business, China’s entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), or on Taiwan. Despite these charges, the Clinton Administration labeled the trip a success on the grounds that relations between the two countries were solidified, allowing each country to move forward as partners on important regional and global security issues.
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