US caught napping for Tiananmen Square visit

Clinton In China

AS THE Chinese retired for the night, taking stock of the small earthquake of glasnost that had shaken their every last taboo, Americans were waking up to a world that looked pretty much the same as when they had gone to bed the night before: forest fires in Florida, the nationwide heatwave, the Monica Lewinsky scandal (nothing new), and, of course, the President was still in China.

An American who had not stayed up until 1am to watch what had been billed a routine news conference and turned into a televised political sparring match between consenting leaders would have been little the wiser. And this was just as the media-managers of the Clinton White House had intended it.

Tiananmen Square was always going to be the riskiest part of Bill Clinton's nine days in China. However many distractions were cooked up in Washington before he set off - and there were many, from questionable sales of US satellites to security in South Asia, to Chinese missiles targeted on US cities - they could never displace for the American public the images of what happened on 4 June 1989, and both sides knew it.

For Mr Clinton, the priority was not to "do an Al Gore". Rarely the most adroit public performer, the Vice-President went to Peking a year ago and found himself clinking champagne glasses with the then Prime Minister, Li Peng, one of the leaders responsible for ordering troops into Tiananmen Square. Chinese protocol - and Chinese dignity - on the other hand, required Mr Clinton to agree to an official Tiananmen Square welcome. For the Chinese, this was a condition for the state visit. For the White House, it was a political challenge of the first order.

As the visit neared, critics in the US openly called for the whole trip to be called off because of the Tiananmen Square ceremony. What became clear yesterday were the trade-offs that had been negotiated and the lengths to which the US side had gone to shield the President from embarrassment.

The Tiananmen Square ceremony lasted only 11 minutes. It was not broadcast live in China. There were no speeches. Li Peng, who is no longer prime minister but remains in the leadership, was not in the receiving line. Television cameras were positioned in such a way as to show as little of Tiananmen Square as possible - there were no pictures of the main gateway with its portrait of Mao Tse-tung.

Evidence of White House precautions was everywhere. Hillary Clinton, who had arrived in Peking wearing red, was now in black. Both she and her husband maintained solemn expressions, as though the occasion was more of a remembrance ceremony than a welcome.

US television networks, which did broadcast the ceremony live, packed their studios with analysts and exiled Chinese dissidents. Chai Ling, one of the leaders of the Tiananmen protest, who is now completing studies at Harvard, lambasted Mr Clinton for being soft on human rights.

The timing of the welcome ceremony, and of the press conference that followed the first round of talks, was canny. The time difference meant that the Tiananmen Square reception took place at 9.30pm in Washington, on a Friday evening - "dead time" for US television. The prepared statements and press conference started precisely at midnight East Coast time.

Not only would a vast majority of Americans be in bed, but it was late for the next morning's US newspapers. In the event, only the very last edition of the Washington Post caught any of the press conference, including Mr Clinton's condemnation of the Tiananmen Square killings.

Nor, in the hours that followed, was there much analysis either of what Mr Clinton had said, or of Chinese reaction. White House correspondents rather than China specialists covered the press conference, and the use Mr Clinton had made of his statement to condemn Tiananmen and the shock to the Chinese of the taboos that were broken - by their own leader, as well as by Mr Clinton - was hardly conveyed.

The morning after brought little enlightenment either. News programmes on Saturday are few and far between and tend to steer clear of politics, leaving that to the battery of Sunday talk shows. And while Mr Clinton's condemnation of Tiananmen will doubtless be mulled over today, the American media will have other words and pictures - of the Clintons attending church in Peking and the promise of the President's address to students at Peking University - which will better match audience expectations.

It may be argued that the elaborate stage-management by the American side was, in the event, unnecessary. Congressional adversaries and the American public might have been pleasantly surprised by their President's forthright words in their name: "I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong."

Then again ... One of those who did stay up to watch television into the small hours posted his view on the Internet: "Jiang came across as businesslike and knowledgeable ... Clinton, on the other hand, was a total embarrassment. That hillbilly appeared to have no clue as to what was going on and looked totally unprepared."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'