Clinton shows imperial style to the Chinese

A huge entourage accompanies the President as he picks his way through a diplomatic minefield. By Teresa Poole in Peking

IT WAS a welcome that only China could have offered a visiting American President. In the former imperial capital of Xian, 800 costumed Chinese actors last night danced to the beat of giant red drums under the brightly illuminated ancient city wall as they feted this son of Arkansas in the style of a Tang Dynasty emperor.

Just hours earlier, in a macabre piece of timing, officials several hundred miles to the south announced the execution of three Chinese men for the murder of an American engineer in March. Such is the diplomatic minefield into which President Clinton has stepped.

Mr Clinton flew into the western Chinese city of Xian already braced by the controversy which has dogged the run-up to his nine-day state visit. After being presented with the key to the city, the President took his first cautious steps into that field with a speech that sought to both please his hosts as well as the critics back home. But for the Chinese, last night was more about pageantry than politics.

The scale of that pageant gave measure to the importance attached to this visit, the first by a US leader since the shooting of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

Women in diaphanous gowns and improbable head-dresses led the way as Mr Clinton and his wife made their long march down yards of welcoming red carpet. By the South Gate of the old city wall, dancers and musicians put on an extravaganza, with copious amounts of dry ice providing a modern touch to an ancient ceremony.

The choice of Xian as Mr Clinton's first stop represented a careful logistical calculation, given that ancient history offers rather safer territory than the diplomatically treacherous present. With the initial speeches out of the way, the first 24 hours of Mr Clinton's induction to China have been designed as a virtually politics-free zone. This morning's visit to the nearby "model" village of Xiahe, followed by a tour of the world- renowned 2,000-year-old life- sized Terracotta Warriors, will provide just the sort of live television pictures which both Mr Clinton and his Chinese hosts want to see beamed back the the US.

It will not be until tomorrow morning that Mr Clinton attends the most provocative event on his itinerary, the formal political welcome by President Jiang Zemin on the edge of Tiananmen Square (carefully timed to miss the main US network news shows).

It is Mr Clinton's handling of China's dismal human rights record which will determine the success or failure of the trip for his audience back home. So far, no meeting with dissidents is on the agenda, but the President has promised to speak forthrightly about repression.

The Chinese authorities are not making his job any easier. By the time of his arrival, at least three dissidents in Xian had been detained with other activists around the country under virtual house arrest. Yesterday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Western notions of a dissident were "vague" and that China "had no dissidents". Mr Clinton does not, however, want China's human rights shortcomings to be the only perception Americans have of the world's last big Communist state. His aides have repeatedly stated that Mr Clinton means to broaden the image of China in the US, with a view to winning support for his policy of "constructive engagement".

The cultural introduction is likely to be a learning experience for the Chinese about the modern-day American Imperial style. Emperor Qinshihuang demonstrated his importance in death by being buried in Xian with hundreds of life-sized terracotta warriors. In life, President Clinton has staged a civil invasion of China in order to educate himself about the present.

The vast presidential entourage which arrived yesterday looked designed to match the warriors one-for-one.

As well as his wife and daughter, Mr Clinton has brought five top-level administration officials, including the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and the Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin. Add to that hundreds of support staff and military personnel, 10 armoured limousines and highly sophisticated secure communications equipment (which the Chinese would dearly love to inspect).

China is not used to this level of imported political pomp and circumstance, but has apparently acceded to Washington's insistence that this is the American way. In the village of Xiahe yesterday, where some homes still lack running water, the US advance team was busy installing modern, portable toilets and a bank of telephones.

And then there are the journalists, not usually China's favourite guests. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said yesterday that 1,020 reporters were registered to cover the Clinton visit, including 268 from the travelling corps, 281 from the Chinese media and 78 Peking-based foreign correspondents.

China's revenge so far has been to charge foreign television reporters up to $1,000 per minute for reports next to the Terracotta Warriors. But even at these prices not everyone is welcome: three journalists from Radio Free Asia, the US propaganda station, had their visas withdrawn at the last minute

The coverage of the state visit by China's own state- controlled media will provide a litmus test of the tentative relaxation of censorship which some observers have discerned in recent months. The first signs were mixed. The main state television network did not screen live footage of Mr Clinton's arrival and speech. However, Phoenix, the cable channel partly owned by Rupert Murdoch which is gaining access on the mainland, did broadcast it in full.

Three who were not watching were the Xian dissidents who were detained before Mr Clinton's arrival. One of them, Yan Jun, was among the 70 people who signed an open letter calling on the President to meet the family of one of the Tiananmen victims. This is likely to be a pattern of the tour.

Most sinister, though, was yesterday's announcement of the executions on Wednesday of three unemployed drug addicts for the murder of an American, Leonard Phillips, in March. Mr Leonard was stabbed while in his hotel room in Guangdong.

The executions took place just hours after the Guangdong High Court dismissed their appeals. Human rights groups abroad often claim that China's executions can sometimes be scheduled to meet demand for organ transplant operations. It would not be beyond Peking to think that executing the murderers of an American was a suitable welcoming present for the president of a country where there is a popular mandate for the death penalty.

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