BEIJING -- The government of China will tell you that the things worth remembering about recent history are these: the pillaging of China carried out in the past by the West and Japan, and the emergence now of China as a major economic power.
The government of the United States offers a different account: China has an authoritarian regime with a deplorable human rights record, flouts international rules on selling dangerous weapons abroad and is engaged in a worrisome military buildup.
Their clashing views help explain the striking difficulties the two nations had even in agreeing to yesterday's meeting at the United Nations between President Clinton and China's President Jiang Zemin. Plus, each party arrived convinced it had the
morally superior positions.
The relationship has at times approached what James Lilley, a former U.S. envoy to Beijing, calls "a dialogue of the deaf."
There was, for example, the problem of arranging the meeting.
At first, the United States considered having the two presidents meet in Washington. China assumed this meant a state visit, with a 21-gun salute for Mr. Jiang, Chinese flags decorating Washington's thoroughfares, plus lofty toasts. At least, that is what China says. U.S. officials insist they never offered a state visit -- but they also failed to specify from the beginning that they envisioned something low-key.
At the same time, each leader seems convinced that the other needs his help.
Both want something
Mr. Clinton wants to know whether China, a nation of more than a billion people and an economy that is doubling every decade, will eventually pose an economic or military threat to the United States or the Pacific.
Mr. Jiang, whose political success depends in part on China's continued economic growth, wants to learn whether the United States will let trade between the two countries grow or if it will be affected by human rights issues -- or whatever else concerns either the president or Congress.
"In the Cold War, it was somewhat more easy to say what our national interests are," says Richard Madsen, professor of Chinese studies at the University of California at San Diego. "Now it's unclear.
"You're dealing with two countries in turmoil."
The administration thinks it can influence China's future intentions by "engagement." Joseph S. Nye Jr., the Pentagon's assistant secretary for international security affairs, describes the process as trying to "bring them out in the world in a benign way."
If the relationship with the United States becomes broad and solid enough, officials hope, it won't be totally thrown off track by every row.
Washington recognizes that Mr. Jiang has moved to consolidate power and that it will have to deal with him at least for several years. But virtually no one is convinced that his position is wholly secure or that he will be without challengers.
With the future leadership still uncertain and mistrust of the West widespread in the government, now is not the time to be confrontational, U.S. officials say.
"If we say China is going to be our enemy, that plays into the debate that's going on in Beijing," says Mr. Nye.
China feels it is being vilified by a declining West afraid of the rising East.
"There's a sense in China, partially reflected throughout Asia, that the United States is in decline, that it can't get its act together and that it is trying hard to prevent Asian countries from having their place in the sun," Mr. Madsen says.
Four big obstacles
Chinese analysts say the United States has purposefully created hindrances to better relations. They talk of four obstacles, beginning with economic tensions, such as U.S. opposition to China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
There are also human rights pressures, pressures about China's military sales abroad, and the long-lived issue of Taiwan. China and the United States spar over what sort of recognition should be given the island that China considers a renegade province.
"Right now, the biggest difficulty in Sino-U.S. relations is that the United States is using the four big obstacles to intensify pressure on China and to hold it back," says Li Zhongcheng, a researcher with the Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations, a think tank affiliated with China's Foreign Ministry.
Mr. Li says the United States made a huge misjudgment when it allowed the visit earlier this year by the president of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui. China considered it as tantamount to U.S. recognition of the island -- and thus requiring "appropriate retaliation."
The retaliation included China recalling its ambassador and granting business deals to other countries at the expense of American competitors.
Relations were not helped by China refusing to conduct diplomacy by long-distance telephone, even when the country refuses to receive high-level U.S. officials.
There was also the embarrassment produced by Harry Wu, the Chinese-born American human rights activist arrested by China during the summer, then released, but who as recently as Monday was offering details about China's use of tens of thousands of forced laborers.
But from China's point of view, the United States has pulled back from the brink of even worse relations -- by reaffirming its policy that Taiwan is indeed a part of China. China's leaders seem to think that the hostility over the summer is past.
"China is also aware that the United States is the largest developed country in the world and that China is the largest developing country," Foreign Ministry spokesman Chen Jian said last week. "So the two countries have a wide range of common issues."
In his remarks to the United Nations, a few hours before the meeting with Mr. Clinton, Mr. Jiang made it clear that he was in no mood to accept criticism on human rights.
"Certain big powers," said Mr. Jiang, "often under the cover of 'freedom,' 'democracy' and 'human rights,' set out to encroach upon the sovereignty of other countries, interfere in their internal affairs and undermine their national unity and ethnic harmony."
Even if Mr. Clinton made himself understood to Mr. Jiang, Mr. Clinton has a problem: China's president most likely listened to him with only one ear, with the other tuned to loud, angry rumblings from Capitol Hill.
Where the administration sees mixed evidence of China's aggressive intent, some congressional Republicans see a clear trend of bullying actions toward Taiwan, Hong Kong and other near neighbors, not to mention China's dissidents. While the administration says that China is building up its military from a very weak base and has a long way to go before it is capable of projecting real power, Republicans see a relentless drive to acquire advanced aircraft and missiles and build an ocean-going navy.
Distrust mixed with envy
In China, the distrust of the United States is still mixed with perhaps envy or respect, as reflected in a recent opinion poll conducted by the China Youth Development Foundation, an agency associated with the government.
Asked which country was the most unfriendly toward China, 87 percent of the people surveyed -- mostly young people -- named the United States. Asked which country had the largest influence on China, 74 percent gave that same answer -- the United States.