Peking warms to benefits of PR

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The Independent Online
FROM THE moment the American president arrives in the former Imperial capital of Xian tomorrow, feted by 800 costumed actors in a ceremony designed for a Tang Dynasty emperor, Peking's main strategy is to showcase its country to the world, and particularly to the American public.

Image-making is high on China's agenda during the eight days Bill Clinton will spend on the mainland, which is just as well because the chance of any significant agreements on trade, geo-politics, or weapons non-proliferation is looking remote.

A breakthrough on China's entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) looks off the cards because Peking's latest concessions on market access are still deemed insufficient by Washington.

China's leaders were very keen on a new fourth joint communique on Taiwan, but this also has been ruled out. For Peking, Taiwan remains the most important bilateral issue in Sino-US relations, and China's leaders will be pressing for other written commitments from Washington that America opposes Taiwan's independence and its membership of the United Nations.

Peking wants Washington to remove barriers to technology exports, satellite launches, and financial credits, as well as lift the sanctions that still remain following the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

But these issues have been clouded by domestic political scandals in the US, including satellite technology transfers and alleged Chinese campaign contributions. Such are the domestic sensitivities that even plans for Mr Clinton to visit various US corporations in China have been removed from the itinerary.

An agreement on nuclear weapons de-targeting is similarly unlikely to emerge. Peking has already made clear it does not support the American proposal that the two countries stop pointing nuclear missiles at each other, arguing instead for a pact on "no first use".

China is, therefore, looking to the visit to shift the world's preconceptions about the country. It wants recognition as a global player in both diplomacy and economics, and points to its decision to keep the yuan stable during the Asian financial crisis.

It also wants to be seen as a fast-modernising country with global clout. The Communist propaganda machine is thus breaking the habit of a lifetime and attempting a bit of "constructive engagement" with the image-makers - the international media.

Guided tours are on offer this week to a farm, the Capital Iron and Steel Factory, and Peking University, and officials are being wheeled out to explain policies on the environment, village elections, and religious freedom.

It is as if China had suddenly discovered pro-active public relations. And all because its leaders believe that this long-awaited state visit will finally redefine modern China's image in the US, assuaging memories of the blood-stained pavements of June 1989.

For President Jiang Zemin himself, the Clinton visit is a much-sought after prize, far more symbolic in domestic political terms than the Chinese president's successful trip to Washington last autumn. The Chinese Imperial tradition, after all, is for foreign dignitaries to beat a path to Peking to pay tribute to the Emperor.

In public, China refuses to admit the risks that it is running. By insisting that Mr Clinton's formal welcoming ceremony in Peking take place on the west side of Tiananmen Square, it hoped to demonstrate that it had moved beyond the diplomatic pariah status of June 1989.

In practice, the occasion of Mr Clinton's red carpet guard of honour on Saturday will prompt more television re-runs of the shootings nine years ago than any dissident press release ever could.

Mr Clinton's arrival has provided a catalyst for China's disparate pro- democracy activists to organise themselves. They seem emboldened by the state visit. Any clumsy detentions of activists by China will eclipse Peking's public relations campaign.

Against this backdrop, and particularly for domestic consumption in the US, Mr Clinton must address the human rights issue in substantive terms in one of his public speeches. That raises the question of whether the Chinese people are going to be allowed to hear what he says, or whether the state-controlled media will be censored.

The one thing that China's leaders may not be able to forgive is if the best-laid summit propaganda plans fall victim to a "bimbo eruption" during the state visit. Mr Jiang wants the world to be focused on Mr Clinton's progress through a modernising China, and not on new revelations about Monica Lewinsky and China's high-profile visitor.