Leading article: When West met East and the East didn't argue

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The Independent Culture
NINE HUNDRED million Chinese can have barely believed their eyes and ears when Bill Clinton appeared on Saturday on CCTV1, the main channel of China's state-controlled television, and criticised the Chinese leadership. Not only that, he did it in the presence of Jiang Zemin. And not only that, the Chinese President responded in a lively, friendly and unscripted debate.

The Peking authorities probably did not intend this unexpected burst of "glasnost with Chinese characteristics". Mr Clinton had not been expected to talk about human rights, the Tiananmen Square massacre and Tibet until later. We do not know who decided to broadcast the news conference live and why they took that risk, but Mr Jiang's response, both during the news conference and afterwards, when he joked and chatted with Mr Clinton at dinner, was encouraging. To be sure, he repeated the same old propaganda arguments, insisting for example that foreign journalists were free to go anywhere in China provided they obeyed the rules - without mentioning that one of these rules is that they need permission to talk to anyone. But there was none of the sense of affront to China's pride that has greeted the raising of the issue of human rights in the past.

In this sense, Mr Clinton's visit is historic, and has confounded the President's American critics who argued that simply by talking to the godless totalitarians of Peking, he was selling out the cause of human rights.

When Richard Nixon made his "historic" visit to Peking in 1972, he explicitly recognised the right of the Chinese to a different value system. He told Chairman Mao: "What is important is not a nation's internal political philosophy. What is important is its policy toward the rest of the world and toward us." Last weekend, a quarter of a century later, Bill Clinton made a very different claim: "We Americans also firmly believe that individual rights, including freedom of speech, association and religion are very important, not only to those who exercise them, but also to nations whose success in the 21st century depends upon widespread individual knowledge, creativity, free exchange and enterprise." And Mr Jiang hardly batted an eyelid.

When Nixon went to Peking, it was an exercise in geo-politics, as he sought to use China as a counter to the Soviet Union; today's visit is more an exercise in geo-economics, seeking to promote China as an alternative engine of growth to Japan. Nixon's visit, during the Vietnam war, was about China and the US coming to terms with each other as military powers, with moral questions put aside. Clinton's trip is about the two countries coming to terms with each other as economic powers, but with an explicit linkage made between liberal economics and democracy. Mr Jiang might not be familiar with Francis Fukuyama's works, but China's elite understands well enough the contradiction between a free-market economic policy and the free exchange of information and ideas, which will make the pressure for human rights and political pluralism irresistible.

Although the broadcast was the most unexpected event in Chinese politics since 1989, we should not assume it was a signal that the communist party has decided on a new policy of openness. The country's leaders will still assert that black is white and will probably go on rounding up dissidents at will. They may react badly if the US administration goes into triumphalist overdrive over the success of the President's lectures on human rights.

But Mr Clinton's visit has certainly been a success, and he would be justified in taking considerable satisfaction from it. It will have made an impact at all levels of Chinese society and, although there are risks of a repressive reaction, the likelihood is that it has accelerated the process of change which will eventually bring political rights to the people of a nation that will dominate the next century.