US caught napping for Tiananmen Square visit
Clinton In China
Sunday 28 June 1998
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."
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