The Clinton Touch Opens Doors to Chinese
As president winds up trip, his impact on Chinese may have long-term benefits for US-China relations.
Midway through a nine-day tour of China, President Clinton seems to be on the campaign trail for his policy of engagement with the world's most populous nation.
As he crisscrosses China to propagate a new era of understanding to replace the clashes and contention of the past, everyone from the Communist Party chief to the Chinese masses is giving Mr. Clinton his or her vote.
In a series of remarkable meetings that have included a televised debate with President Jiang Zemin and a brainstorming session with Chinese scholars and writers on the two sides' future, Clinton is triggering a sea change in cross-Pacific ties.
"A year ago, I could not have imagined how successful President Clinton's trip could be in reigniting friendship between the US and China," says Wu Guolan, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
"As two countries that have such diverse histories, the US and China are certain to have misunderstandings," says Ms. Wu. "But as two great continental civilizations that both have their sights on the future and the world, we seem to have a rapidly growing range of common goals," she adds.
The Army's 1989 attack on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc seemed to break most of the bonds between Washington and Beijing. Yet China's rise as a major economic power and as a force for nuclear nonproliferation and economic stability in Asia, combined with a loosening of Communist Party controls, are helping to create a new foundation for partnership with the US.
"As I said in Beijing in the press conference I had with Jiang Zemin ... the forces of history are driving us toward a common future," says Clinton.
During a freewheeling, roundtable discussion June 30 with a cross-section of scholars on China's future, Clinton added that expanded talks between the two sides are aimed at narrowing political differences and laying the framework for "friendship with the Chinese people over the long run into the 21st century."
Since Clinton and Jiang's surprising exchange over the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square in the news conference broadcast live throughout China, "we feel that the boundaries on what we can talk about are melting away," says a recent university graduate.
A spirit of glasnost seemed to animate the round-table talk. Wu Qidi, who heads Shanghai's Tongji University, told Clinton: "When you talked about human rights with President Jiang in Beijing, I think it was a very good way ... there is good reason for us to become friends, not enemies."
Zhu Lanye, a law professor at Fudan University who joined the meeting, says "The Chinese government put absolutely no restrictions on what we could say." At the talk, Professor Zhu mildly criticized Clinton for the remarkably inward-looking nature of most citizens of the world's sole superpower, and repeated an oft-heard complaint here that most Chinese know far more about the US than Americans do about China.
Zhu also joked with the president as he foundered over a question about his post-White House future. When Clinton deadpanned that he might be angling for a visiting professorship in Shanghai, Zhu chided him with: "You don't speak Chinese."
Yet in an interview after the meeting, Zhu extended an open invitation for Clinton to join Fudan University's staff. She also echoed the American leader's statement that only through increased dialogue can the West and the East begin to understand each other and the rapidly changing global landscape.
"In the West," she says, "society develops at the pace of evolution. Yet in China, an information revolution, the commercialization of society, and our opening to the West are creating an explosion of change, and it's hard for even us Chinese to understand," she adds in fluent English.
Indeed, Zhu's own life is a metaphor for the ocean of change that has washed over China over the past few decades. Zhu says her high school education was cut short by Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution, a radical, decade-long effort to create a communist utopia by destroying China's past. After a stint as one of Mao's Red Guard storm-troopers, Zhu was sent to bitterly cold Heilongjiang province to learn from the peasants. "At that time, I wouldn't have dared to talk to a foreigner," Zhu says.
Mao's passing in 1976 paved the way for China's drive to join the global community, and the country is barely recognizable now, she says.
After talking to the head of China's onetime enemy, Zhu says the exchange seemed quite natural. "This is an international city, and there is a saying these days that the people of Shanghai have seen everything under the sun." Zhu welcomed Clinton's offer to construct a web of links between their two countries. "The Internet, satellite television, and a world pop culture are bringing us closer to the West" and triggering the high-speed transformation of Chinese society, she says.
During his whirlwind tour of China, Clinton has tempered his criticism of China's human-rights policies with calls for each of the Pacific titans to try to erase their differences through increased contact, and that approach is winning followers from every corner of society.
"I think Clinton's new opening to China is great," says researcher Wu. "It seems there's an entirely new era unfolding for us."