NEVER BEFORE has China's head of state offered such gripping live political entertainment. The country's 1.2 billion people, most of whom have access to a television, switched on to see President Jiang Zemin engaged in robust debate with President Bill Clinton over taboo political subjects - the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the Dalai Lama and the importance of individual human rights. Yesterday ordinary Chinese were reeling from the experience.
Chinese Christians gathering at Chongwenmen church, where Mr Clinton attended Sunday morning service, were eager to talk about the televised 70-minute joint press conference on Saturday.
"It's good for the Chinese people. Jiang Zemin said that he and Clinton could disagree, and that this was democracy. Maybe we also have disagreements with Jiang Zemin, and we can talk about them in the future," said a 34- year-old Peking lawyer.
One elderly woman admitted she had been amazed to switch on China Central Television (CCTV), the state network, and see the debate. "It's the work of God," she said.
"Chinese leaders nowadays are more open-minded than before," said another.
The blunt, but good-natured, exchange of views between the "leader of the free world" and the head of the last major Communist power was remarkable in itself. The fact that China Central Television decided at the last moment to transmit the whole press conference live on national television was astonishing in a country where the state-controlled media never contradicts official policy and there is no public political debate.
To Americans, it was reminiscent of 1988, when Ronald Reagan was shown addressing Moscow University on the importance of political freedom.
The immediate test for this new "open-mindedness" comes this morning, when Mr Clinton is due to speak about human rights at Peking University, traditionally the seat of political activism in China. It remains to be seen if CCTV will oblige with another live domestic transmission.
Yesterday's Chinese newspapers printed only sanitised reports of the joint press conference, censoring all of Mr Clinton's most pungent remarks. Evening television news programmed similarly showed only edited excerpts.
But on Saturday, Chinese viewers saw the US president forthrightly criticise the events of June 1989, when hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed: "I believe, and the American people believe, that the use of force and the tragic loss of life was wrong," said Mr Clinton, standing just 10 feet from President Jiang.
It was the first time the mainland Chinese media had carried any criticism of the government's decision to send in the troops. Any Chinese citizen who publicly voices such sentiments is likely to be detained.
"I believe, and the American people believe, that freedom of speech, association and religion are, as recognised by United Nations charter, the right of people everywhere and should be protected by their governments," said Mr Clinton, who also outlined proposals for more releases of political prisoners.
Responding to Mr Clinton on June 1989, Mr Jiang simply repeated the official mantra. "With regard to the political disturbances of 1989, had the Chinese government not taken the resolute measures, then we could not have enjoyed the stability that we are enjoying today," he said.
Then there was the question of Tibet. To a Chinese audience taught to loath the Dalai Lama as a traitor and a "splittist", it was at least startling to hear a Western leader describe the exiled Tibetan leader as "a holy man". When the joint press conference wrapped up with both men laughing at Mr Clinton's suggestion that the Chinese president and the Dalai Lama "would like each other very much" if they met, many viewers had to pinch themselves.
An unexpected aspect of the spectacle for Chinese viewers was to see their own president, a wooden performer, joking and looking relaxed as he fielded questions about China's political prisoners and human rights. "I think President Clinton is a strong defender of the American interests. And I am a strong defender of the Chinese interests," he said, raising a laugh. "Despite that, we still can have very friendly exchange of views and discussions. And I think that is democracy."
The press conference followed a two-and-a-half-hour summit meeting, the outcome of which was more symbolic than substantive. An agreement to de- target nuclear weapons from each other's cities and resumption of a human rights dialogue were the main results - except for the extraordinarily warm rapport which the two leaders seemed to establish.
The question is where does all this lead? Who took the decision for CCTV to broadcast? Does President Jiang realise how his reputation will have been enhanced by the decision, both inside and outside the country?
This evening Mr Clinton flies to Shanghai, the third stop on his nine- day state visit. At least one activist has already been cleared out of town ahead of his arrival, and US officials hope there will not be another row about dissident detentions. The four dissidents detained in the city of Xian, Mr Clinton's first stop, had all been released by last night.
Such behaviour is unlikely to change, and amid the euphoria surrounding the televised press conference, it was easy to forget that most of Mr Jiang's remarks came straight from the propaganda handbook.
One of the questions had concerned those detained in Xian, individuals who had agreed to be interviewed by foreign journalists.
Mr Jiang said: "There is no restriction whatsoever on the coverage and interview by the reporters and correspondents within the scope of the law.
"But as for some activities that have been detrimental ... then the local authorities should take measures to deal with them."
However, he did not explain that, under Chinese law, no interview of any Chinese citizen can take place without permission from the authorities.
The Foreign Ministry at the weekend simply denied that anyone had been detained in the first place.
Leading article Review, page 3
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies