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Clinton vs. Nixon: Changed US Views On Trip to China

These days, Chinese regime is more open, but Americans are making a bigger fuss.

As President Clinton prepares for an official welcome at Tiananmen Square June 27, complete with a 21-gun salute and the solemnly militaristic Chinese national anthem, he faces a politician's nightmare.

Back home, Mr. Clinton's televised image will undoubtedly be juxtaposed with dramatic footage of Tiananmen during China's euphoric 1989 democracy movement and the brutal army onslaught that crushed it, killing hundreds of civilians.

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Clinton's trip, the first to China by a US president since 1989, has stirred criticism virtually unprecedented for an American head of state embarking on a foreign tour. Congressional opponents label it a "tragedy" and "disaster," and more than 150 lawmakers have urged Clinton not to go, a view backed by one-third of Americans in a recent poll.

Indeed, today's public indignation contrasts strikingly with the relative quiet surrounding even the visit by President Nixon to China in 1972.

When Mr. Nixon met Chairman Mao Zedong, the Chinese dictator was waging the Cultural Revolution, a fanatical, decade-long campaign in which millions of Chinese were persecuted and killed. No US-China trade existed. Travel was banned. Unlike today, Beijing was "an exceedingly drab, dull city with old Albanian movies playing on black-and-white TVs," recalls former US Ambassador Chas Freeman, Nixon's interpreter at the time.

Despite the sweeping changes in China since the late 1970s, the percentage of Americans who view China unfavorably is slightly greater now (54 percent) than it was in 1979 (52 percent), when Washington and Beijing reestablished diplomatic relations.

Why this paradox, China experts ask? Are such attitudes hindering the ability of the United States to promote freedom in China? And how might Clinton's trip reshape American views?

On one hand, experts say, US criticism of China is no longer held in check by the cold war rivalry with the Soviet Union. When Nixon played the China card, Americans might have put Mao's rule on a scale next to Soviet regimes. Today, in contrast, they judge China's Communist leadership more by US standards.

Moreover, US expectations for an American-style remaking of China rose sharply during Deng Xiaoping's bold experiments with market reform and social opening in the 1980s - only to be quashed by the military crackdown at Tiananmen. The blow to American hopes from China's hard-line resurgence was all the stronger, coming as communist governments were collapsing throughout the Soviet bloc.

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For many Americans, images from the Tiananmen protests - the giant "goddess of democracy" floating above a sea of protesters, the white-shirted Beijing man blocking a chain of tanks - became symbols of China itself.

Indeed, Tiananmen Square became one of the news events of the decade. It attracted the full attention of nearly half of all Americans, among the biggest audience ever for a foreign-based story, surpassed only by interest in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"Tiananmen Square remains the defining moment in US opinion about China," according to a study by Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

"It is the one piece of news that the American public has absorbed about China, and it reinforces [the view] that China is not democratic," he says.

Nine years later, political repression remains serious in China. Human rights groups say thousands of political prisoners are behind bars, including dissidents, labor activists, Tibetan nationalists, and members of underground religious groups.

In an effort to sanitize Beijing before Clinton's visit, for example, police have recently detained or ordered silent well-known dissidents in the capital and blocked out-of-town activists from the city, human rights groups report. Also, Beijing's leaders continue to reject demands that they reverse the official verdict labeling the 1989 protests a "counterrevolutionary rebellion." They refuse to consider amnesty for those jailed in its wake or to apologize to the families of those killed.

Nevertheless, experts stress that China has also experienced broad forces for progressive change - powerful forces such as private enterprise and social liberalization unleashed by the 1980s reforms that in many ways propelled the pro-democracy movement and have revived and even accelerated in its wake.

Yet most Americans, by focusing on Tiananmen, have failed to pay attention to these positive trends, experts say. Despite widespread evidence to the contrary, for example, the majority of Americans don't believe that China is moving toward a more free-market economic system or expanding the range of social freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, according to a recent Gallup poll.

"China is more than Tiananmen, and this relationship can't be put inside that box," says Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at The Brookings Institution in Washington.

In China, therefore, Clinton faces a challenge. He must address the dissatisfaction Americans feel toward the Communist regime, while emphasizing the need to support cooperation that could promote progress in human rights and political pluralism. With this in mind, Clinton is expected to raise forcefully China's human rights record during a speech at Beijing University and in other statements.

HE will attend a Protestant church on Sunday. He has not ruled out meeting with dissidents or other gestures related to Tiananmen, although China's government strongly discourages such actions.

"If he gives a good strong speech about China being on the wrong side of history, he will get credit," says Douglas Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center and a former China expert on the National Security Council.

In meetings with Chinese leaders, the president is expected to press for the release of more political prisoners, wider religious freedom, and steps to increase the international monitoring and nongovernmental dialogue on human rights in China. He is likely to announce further US-China legal exchanges aimed at reforming the Chinese justice system, training lawyers, and advancing the rule of law.

Moreover, in an effort to demonstrate to Americans the vitality and promise of China's ongoing reforms, Clinton will meet with elected village leaders in the ancient capital of Xian, hold a forum with young entrepreneurs in Shanghai, and visit with China's new class of homeowners.

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