Grin and Bear It

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NISID HAJARIZhu Rongji drew a typically long face as he stood listening to U.S. President Bill Clinton speak on the South Lawn of the White House last Thursday. But when the Chinese Prime Minister took the podium himself, his words were smiling: I love the Chinese people, the often acerbic Zhu enthused in English. I love the American people. Earlier in Los Angeles, where pearly grins have been raised to an art form, Zhu made a point of smiling often and drawing attention to the fact. He was smiling when he joked with Mayor Richard Riordan's wife about accusations that China had stolen U.S. military secrets. At her suggestion that Beijing label its hardware Made in China, not U.S.A., he laughed outright. Zhu is not the only one trying to put the best possible face on his U.S. visit, the first by a Chinese premier in 15 years. Coming amid yet another chill in Sino-American relations--this one fueled not only by charges of espionage, but also by trade disagreements and the NATO bombing of Kosovo--Zhu's nine-day tour seemed doomed from the beginning. Neither his domestic critics nor Clinton's were inclined to grant either leader the flexibility necessary to move relations forward. Instead, during Zhu's stopover in Washington late last week, both leaders could only rely upon the pomp of state dinners and 19-gun salutes to quiet the polemics that have been dominating headlines in both countries. The visit, says former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia Richard Solomon, demonstrates the fragility of support for normal ties between the two countries. But by hanging tough now, the two leaders may have strengthened their hands at home, and may be able to improve relations in the future.

Several times, the straight-talking Zhu insisted that his primary goal was to clear the air by speaking directly to the American people. That he did, with a disregard for the Foreign Ministry's prepared speeches that drove translators to distraction (and the occasional mistake). In Los Angeles, audiences marveled at his quick-witted and easy manner--a warmth that few associate with China's usually shellacked cadres, but that has always been one of Zhu's strengths. In Washington, he won fans with his exuberant English lines on the South Lawn. It was a great political touch, says Republican senator Arlen Specter. He certainly topped Gorbachev's performance in 1987. If nothing else, Zhu can walk away knowing that he leaves an impression--carefully fostered--as someone that Washington can work with.

Yet China's economic czar failed to win the one prize he had hoped to take back to Beijing: formal U.S. backing for the Chinese bid to join the World Trade Organization. His team, led by China's chief negotiator for the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, Long Yongtu, agreed to major concessions after four days of round-the-clock talks. The Chinese promised to lift restrictions on the import of American agricultural products, including wheat from the American Northwest and citrus from four states. They agreed to open up 24 Chinese cities to foreign insurance companies, to break up state-run China Telecom, and to expand significantly the number of flights between the two countries. American telecommunications companies can now control Chinese cellular telephone firms and Internet companies. The two sides vowed to try and resolve all outstanding issues by the end of the year.

But those issues that do remain--things like allowing U.S. brokerages to operate freely on the mainland and Hollywood to distribute its movies--are not the only, or perhaps even the largest obstacles to an agreement. In my view, the gap between the two sides is really already not very significant, a frustrated Zhu said at a joint White House press conference with Clinton. If you want to hear some honest words, the problem does not lie with some big gap, but with the political atmosphere.

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When Zhu Rongji arrives in the United States, he will have to traverse the minefield that Sino-U.S. relations have become
--TIME Asia, April 12, 1999

China's Prime Minister has always skated the thin line between success and disgrace
--TIME Asia, April 12, 1999

Beijing is getting fed up with U.S. carping
--TIME Asia, April 12, 1999

 
Of course, Zhu knew that before he arrived. In an April 2 interview with Toronto's Globe and Mail, he acknowledged that there were some Americans who do not welcome me to their country, and even some Chinese who may not be very happy to see me visit the United States. Cadres at home have become increasingly resentful of what they see as an unwarranted tide of China-bashing in the U.S. That anger, intensified by outrage over NATO's intervention in Kosovo, nearly kept Zhu home. He took something of a risk by coming at all: the hot rhetoric echoing from Washington has emboldened Chinese hardliners, who have their own complaints about the Premier's drastic economic restructuring plans. President Jiang Zemin gave the final go-ahead for the trip: And he is the No. 1 in China so I had to obey him, Zhu quipped. Yet in the first days of the visit, state-run media paid less attention to Zhu than to National People's Congress Chairman Li Peng, his predecessor and conservative rival, who was on his own overseas trip to Syria.

Nor did Zhu expect much sympathy in the U.S. (Will my 'new face' be turned into a bloody face? he asked a group of American legislators before leaving.) As usual, human rights groups planned protests for each stop on the Prime Minister's six-city itinerary; hundreds gathered across the street from the White House during Zhu's visit, parading a coffin labeled the death of human rights in China. This time, their voices were joined by a broad range of political heavyweights--from Republican legislators and presidential candidates to Clinton himself--none of whom could afford to be accused of being soft on Beijing. In Los Angeles, Zhu lightheartedly complained that Democratic Governor Gray Davis had made him late for a luncheon by demanding to discuss human rights. (In Denver, the Colorado state senate voted 18 to 16 to require Governor Bill Owens to do the same when Zhu visited on Saturday.) The next day the Premier awoke to find new allegations in the New York Times that China had stolen the technology for making neutron bombs from the U.S. in 1996. On Friday, even Vice President Al Gore--hoping to insulate himself from attacks by rival presidential candidates--interrupted his speech at an environmental conference attended by Zhu to note that engagement with China must be consistent with our values as Americans. It must put a priority on the pursuit of human rights and democracy. It must protect American security.

Clinton struggled awkwardly to temper the feeding frenzy. We cannot allow a healthy argument to lead us toward a campaign-driven cold war with China, he warned shortly before Zhu's arrival. No one could possibly gain from that except for the most rigid, backward-looking elements in China itself. At their joint press conference, the U.S. President did chide China for its recent crackdown on democracy activists, and he encouraged Zhu to visit Taipei personally to ease tensions across the Taiwan Strait. But when Zhu denied any knowledge of the theft of nuclear secrets from American labs, Clinton lightly agreed that he, too, headed a large government and could not always know of his underlings' actions.

The White House is well aware of how little room it has to maneuver at the moment. Many business leaders warmly welcomed the trade concessions made by the Chinese in Washington, and would like to see China brought into the WTO as quickly as possible. Others at least have a healthy respect for the challenges facing Zhu: If you take [Treasury Secretary] Bob Rubin's job and add [Federal Reserve Chairman] Alan Greenspan's job and then multiply it 10 times, then you have an idea of Zhu's job, says Goldman Sachs International vice-chairman Robert Hormats. But an odd and ad hoc coalition has developed between labor and environmental activists--two traditional bases of Democratic support--and conservative Republicans, with both camps insistent that China not only lower all its trade barriers but clean up the rest of its act as well. Why should we believe that the PRC will keep its promises for WTO? asked Republican Representative Chris Cox, author of a 700-page report detailing alleged Chinese espionage efforts in the U.S. If a government breaks its promises to its own citizens, if it breaks the international rules for civil and political rights that it has acceded to formally, why should we trust in mere promises? Faced with that kind of opposition, Clinton knows he can sign nothing less than an airtight agreement.

Nor, despite Zhu's craving for a deal, is Beijing in the mood for much more compromise. On the day the Premier left for America, officials at home announced the postponement of the trial of Fang Jue, a former mid-level cadre detained last July after calling for political reform. But the goodwill gesture was limited. Only a day earlier, during the Ching Ming festival in which families pay respect at their ancestors' gravesites, authorities prevented U.S.-based dissident Wang Xizhe from returning to Guangzhou to visit his father's grave. Ding Zilin--mother of one of the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre--complained that police blocked her from leaving her Beijing apartment to buy offerings for her late son. Another Beijing mother, He Xintong, reported that after her daughter published a commentary in the Washington Post calling upon Clinton to take up the cause of her father, jailed democracy activist Xu Wenli, security agents showed up at the family's doorstep demanding to know the name and address of the U.S. college she attends. The social tensions that are being fuelled by Zhu's own reforms only promise to make authorities even more edgy--and intolerant.

On the other hand, no one yet knows whether the evident camaraderie between Clinton and Zhu will mellow attitudes on either side of the Pacific. But as both leaders were quick to reiterate, at least they could manage a frank and cordial airing of views--something that has been in short supply in recent months. We believe that maybe the friends that are able to say 'No' to you are the best for you,' Zhu told the White House press corps. Perhaps now Beijing and Washington can say that with a smile.

Reported by Jaime A. FlorCruz with Zhu, Barry Hillenbrand/Washington and Mia Turner/Beijing

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When Zhu Rongji arrives in the United States, he will have to traverse the minefield that Sino-U.S. relations have become
--TIME Asia, April 12, 1999

China's Prime Minister has always skated the thin line between success and disgrace
--TIME Asia, April 12, 1999

Beijing is getting fed up with U.S. carping
--TIME Asia, April 12, 1999