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Speaking Out in China

It may be too soon to call President Clinton's news conference with Chinese President Jiang Zemin "historic," as some instantly declared.

But if nothing more, Mr. Clinton did what the American people would expect of any president visiting China - he spoke out on human rights.

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The Chinese allowed Mr. Clinton's remarks on human rights Saturday to be broadcast live and uncensored on television to the Chinese people (though the program was not publicized and rebroadcasts edited out his strongest comments).

The president, who had stood at the edge of Tiananmen Square during formal greeting ceremonies, spoke during a joint 70-minute news conference in unvarnished terms about what happened there nine years earlier.

"I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life [at Tiananmen] was wrong," he said, adding, "freedom of speech, association, and religion are, as recognized by the UN Charter, the right of people everywhere and should be protected by their governments."

Mr. Jiang responded by defending China's crackdown at Tiananmen as necessary to maintain civil order. Chinese watching the remarkable debate saw US-style political give-and-take.

Time will tell if it becomes the basis for a more frank discussion of the issue of human rights within China. A letter from Zhao Ziyang, a former Chinese Communist Party general secretary, had tried to reopen that discussion last month. He urged the government to admit its tragic mistake at Tiananmen.

"Don't drag June 4 into the next century to resolve," he pleaded.

Today, Clinton speaks at Beijing University, where many of the leaders at Tiananmen were students. That speech still may be the centerpiece of his visit, his most elaborated reasoning on why democracy and respect for human rights in China are in its own best interests. Whether that speech will be televised unabridged remains to be seen.

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Even if it is not, the president has already said what needed to be said, where it needed to be said. For China's sake, let's hope it will be heeded.

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