Students turn the tables on Clinton

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AN AUDIENCE of China's elite students yesterday turned the tables on President Bill Clinton, challenging him on America's own human-rights record, arms sales to Taiwan, and whether there was a hidden agenda, "behind your smile", to "contain" China.

The exchange at Peking University, cradle of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, was broadcast live, again giving Mr Clinton an opportunity to take his message on "universal" rights and individual freedoms direct to the Chinese.

His access to China's airwaves has become the most remarkable aspect of his visit, following the decision to broadcast Saturday's joint press conference with President Jiang Zemin. Today in Shanghai Mr Clinton is to host a live radio phone-in.

Yesterday there was little in his speech or answers to make the state propaganda tsars flinch. He argued for "greater respect for divergent political and religious convictions" but, unlike at the weekend, made no direct mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the Dalai Lama, or China's imprisoned dissidents.

On human rights, the American president appeared to tread cautiously.

"Today we do not seek to impose our vision on others but we are convinced certain rights are universal," he said. But Mr Clinton also described how he had "seen freedom in many manifestations" in China. Citing village democracy, fax machines and a Sunday church service, he added: "In all these ways I felt a steady breeze of freedom."

Yesterday the prominent dissident Wang Youcai felt something rather chillier when police took him from his home in Zhejiang province, west of Shanghai.

Last week he and two friends tried to register an independent party, and, like other activists, he has probably been rounded up until Mr Clinton is out of his area. Such incidents provide a reminder for Mr Clinton that his new role on Chinese television may prove no more than an aberration.

And the Peking University appearance was an equally timely lesson that the gilded youth of modern China have not signed up for American values in their entirety. Taking questions afterwards, the leader of the free world seemed taken aback to find students at China's premier learning establishment had their own, equally forceful, take on world affairs. Why, asked one, was America "repeatedly selling advanced weapons to Taiwan?" Another asked: "Do you have any other hidden sayings behind this smile? Do you have any other design to contain China?" Mr Clinton responded: "If I did, I wouldn't mask it behind a smile. But I don't."

Another student said China welcomed "sincere" suggestions on its rights situation, but countered: "Do you think that in the United States today there are also some problems in the area of democracy, freedom, and human rights?" Mr Clinton admitted racial discrimination and crime were still problems in the US.

If he had assumed his audience would publicly welcome his words on the importance of individual freedoms, another student told him otherwise. "In China the prosperous development of the nation is actually the free choice of our people. I think that only those who can really respect the freedom of others can really say that they understand what freedom means," she said, to applause.

No student with any sense of self-preservation would have stood up, live on national television, and yesterday asked any question which directly challenged the Chinese government. Afterwards, speaking privately, there were more enthusiastic responses. "Excellent!," was the verdict of Ms Zhao, a geology post-graduate student. "His speech was to our students' taste. And he himself is a nice person with charming character. Some of those questions are really good." But there was also criticism. A maths postgraduate student said: "His speech was too general, not frank enough."

The only slightly tense moment came when a student reminded Mr Clinton how Mr Jiang had been met by demonstrating students when he addressed Harvard University last autumn. How would Mr Clinton feel if treated like that on arrival in Peking?

He could have pointed out that students are not allowed to demonstrate in China, or said he would have liked to see students expressing their opinions. But he offered a blander response. He would like to "go over and talk to them" or ask for one or two demonstrators to be brought to him "and they could say what is on their minds, and I could answer".

It was tame compared to Saturday. But it must have come as news to many of the millions watching that Mr Jiang had faced demonstrators on his US trip - not the sort of information normally carried by China's state media.