Glasnost? Well, it's certainly similar to Moscow in 1987

PRESIDENT CLINTON'S question and answer session at Peking University and the landmark press conference at which he and President Jiang jousted "forbidden" topics like the Tiananmen Square killings and the Dalai Lama before a live television audience were vintage moments of early Chinese glasnost. No one knew in advance that either session would be broadcast, not even - apparently - President Clinton.

Before the press conference, he did not know whether he would be addressing 500 journalists or half of China, said one aide. It was the sort of surprise that drivers pulled off the road for and which neighbour related to neighbour.

But they were examples of early glasnost because no one knew to tune in, because subsequent reports omitted the most sensitive sections, and because they were novel enough to arouse controversy. They place China in terms of glasnost roughly where the former Soviet Union was in 1987, when Margaret Thatcher ran rings around three premier state television interviewers and told them that the world saw Soviet missiles as a threat. That interview was broadcast, late at night and unannounced, but it became a legend. So, too, did Ronald Reagan's epic exchange with Moscow University students a year later - and precisely 10 years before Mr Clinton's visit to China, where he quoted from banned writers, castigated obstructive bureaucrats everywhere, and preached individual freedom.

Some in Washington have criticised Mr Clinton for being mealy-mouthed, especially in his condemnation of Tiananmen Square - for "saying as little as he could get away with about the tragic loss of life more accurately called a massacre", in the words of William Safire. Others have compared his relatively low-key and at times even pedestrian manner in Peking unfavourably with the messianic spirit of President Reagan in Moscow - which a re-reading of the Reagan transcripts shows to be a fair criticism.

Yet there are parallels. The televised statements of foreign leaders can have an effect. Some of what Mr Clinton said will be remembered down the years in China, just as the words of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan are remembered in Russia. They offered a different view, and they defended it.

One of the basic questions posed by the opening up of Russia and China is whether change is more successfully accomplished when political change precedes economic change, as in Russia, or when economic change precedes political change as in China. So far, analysts have seemed to favour the Chinese model, citing the chaotic post-Soviet economy, the supposed transfer of media control from the state to corrupt business interests, and the immaturity of party politics.

It can be argued, however, that while China's private sector is infinitely more developed than Russia's was before the fall of the Communist regime, China now faces a transition to political freedoms that must advance if economic progress is to continue. Certainly, many of the political phenomena that could be observed in the Soviet Union of the late Eighties are now surfacing in China.

The media in late Soviet Russia were almost as free to discuss local controversies and economic corruption as they are now in China. And when a new generation of journalists and students is emboldened to ask the sort of searching questions that Russian reporters and students were starting to ask about their system, and their Chinese counterparts are prepared to air in public forums today, the days of information dictatorship are numbered.

There are then only two questions to ask: whether the regime can change fast enough to accommodate that change, and if not, what then?

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