Departing from the script

Clinton In China: Teresa Poole witnesses the civilised war of words between Messrs Clinton and Jiang that passed for China's first public political debate
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THERE IS a new sign by the side of Tiananmen Square which lays down the regulations for keeping the area "solemn, silent and clean". There are to be "no activities in any way which damage the honour of our country", it reads. "No writing, distributing, posting, hanging or spreading propaganda materials." For this is "an important place where the Government holds the political assembly and meets the distinguished foreign guests".

Yesterday morning, the 21-gun salute had been rolled out for that most distinguished of foreign guests, Bill Clinton. In a formal welcome ceremony by the Great Hall of the People on the west side of the square, the band played and the People's Liberation Army goose-stepped for what was billed in the West as the most excruciating item on President Clinton's nine- day itinerary in China.

According to his US critics, and some Chinese dissidents, this was the moment when the President betrayed the memories of hundreds who died in the June 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

By the end of the day, however, the ceremony had almost been forgotten. Out on the square, once the official welcome was over, dozens of poorly- disguised security men were on alert for the unexpected. Youths in plain clothes talked into rolled-up newspapers with walkie-talkie aerials sticking out the end, and state security's photographers snapped anything that moved. They need not have bothered. All the "spreading propaganda" was going on inside the Great Hall of the People, and it was the distinguished guest who was doing it.

When Mr Clinton and Mr Jiang emerged from their two- and-a-half-hour summit, the body language looked relaxed. The only substantive result was a largely symbolic agreement to de-target mutually their nuclear weapons, a gesture that "demonstrates to the entire world that China and the US are partners, not adversaries", said Mr Jiang. But as the two leaders took to their podiums to read out statements and to take questions together, it became clear that the whole event was about to go out live across the country on China Central Television.

Here was Mr Clinton's chance to emulate Ronald Reagan's historic moment in Moscow in 1988, when he spoke about freedom and democracy. Mr Clinton told his audience that the US applauded the economic and social transformation of China's reforms. But he added: "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." He addressed the crackdown in June 1989 directly: "Earlier this morning during my official welcome, I could hear and see the many echoes of China's past and the call of its promising future ... I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong."

In a country where most press conferences by government leaders are pre- scripted, this was live theatre of extraordinary sensitivity. For the first time, a Chinese president could be seen by his people engaging in the rough and tumble of political debate. And engage Mr Jiang did. Normally a wooden figure, he surprised both his adversary and his audience. The answers may have been straight out of the propaganda briefing manual, but he fielded questions on the detention of dissidents ahead of Mr Clinton's arrival, as well as the issue of June 1989.

On criticisms of the way China has rounded up dissidents, Mr Jiang said: "In China we have our laws. And in China's constitution it is clearly stipulated that the Chinese citizens have freedom of speech, but any law- breaking activities must be dealt with according to law. I think this is true in any country of the rule of law."

Ironically, it was a planted question from the New China News Agency which led to the extended exchange of views on human rights. Mr Jiang produced the stock response to any question about June 1989. He said: "With regard to the political disturbances of 1989, the Chinese people have long drawn a historical conclusion ... that with regard to the political disturbances of 1989, had the Chinese government not taken the resolute measures, then we could not have enjoyed the stability that we are enjoying today."

Mr Clinton struck back: "Every country wants stability. Our country was founded by people who felt they were abused by royal powers, by people with power. And they wanted to protect their personal liberties by putting limits on government. And they understood clearly that any system, because human beings are imperfect, can be abused. So the question for all societies going forward into the 21st century is which is the better gamble. If you have a lot of personal freedom, some people might abuse it. But if you are so afraid of personal freedom because of the abuse, that you limit people's freedom too much, then you pay, I believe, an even greater price."

By Western standards, it was tame stuff. But in China, no one had heard anything like this since June 1989.