Dissident arrests mar Clinton visit

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PRESIDENT CLINTON flew into Peking last night, shifting gear from the picture-postcard start to his state visit to today's controversial formal welcome in Tiananmen Square, scene of the June 1989 shootings of pro-democracy activists.

But for ordinary Pekingers, the United States president's arrival was something to be cheered. As his 30-car convoy sped through the capital city in the late evening, crowds of passers-by erupted into spontaneous applause and people waved from halted buses.

Today's summit with President Jiang Zemin represents the business stop of the US president's nine-day "long march" through the mainland and Hong Kong. No-one expects any diplomatic breakthroughs, but the symbolic meeting will set a tone for the rest of Mr Clinton's visit, including how the two sides deal with differences over human rights.

Yesterday, amid photo-opportunity presidential visits to a Chinese village and the 2,000-year old terracotta warriors, neither side was pulling its punches over the question of why a number of Chinese dissidents had been rounded up by police before Mr Clinton's arrival in the city of Xian on Thursday evening.

The US National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, said: "It's the China security apparatus doing what comes naturally. People are not debris to be swept up, for a visitor." He said China's response to US concerns had been "disappointing", and that Mr Clinton would raise the matter today with Mr Jiang.

Mr Clinton, pressed by US reporters, said he found the reports disturbing. "If true they represent not China at its best, not China looking forwards but looking backwards. One of the reasons that I came here was to discuss both privately and publicly issues of personal freedom," he said.

China's own public statements yesterday appeared designed to confirm the West's worst perceptions. A foreign ministry spokesman declared: "So- called arrests of dissidents by the Chinese side are rumours spread by people with an axe to grind." Technically, the Xian dissidents who were taken into custody by police were "detained", not "arrested".

For anyone who wanted an introduction to "old China" yesterday, there could be no better demonstration than the state media's treatment of Mr Clinton's arrival in China, a visit long yearned-for by the leadership in Peking. The main Chinese language newspapers yesterday morning printed not one single photograph of the US president's arrival, and omitted all his comments on the benefits of "individual thoughts, beliefs and creativity".

The biggest headline in yesterday's People's Daily read: "Conscientiously study and understand the spirit of comrade Jiang Zemin's speech and steadfastly walk in the front ranks of constructing reform and opening and modernisation."

None of this has much relevance to the way most ordinary Chinese people now try to lead their lives.