WASHINGTON -- Facing down critics of his trip to China, President Clinton yesterday defended his plans to take part in an arrival ceremony at Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 massacre of dissidents and a powerful symbol to opponents of his China policy.
"I simply don't accept the proposition that observing their diplomatic protocol in any way undermines my capacity to advance the principles of the United States," Clinton said at a news conference.
The president's scheduled arrival at the square on June 26 has been decried by critics as an example of his willingness to overlook Beijing's brutal treatment of dissidents to pursue better political and economic relations with China.
Clinton's balancing act -- he plans to meet with Chinese civilians, for example, but not with well-known dissidents who might face punishment later -- illustrates how politically treacherous the trip has become.
Aides are grimly preparing for a visit that has drawn vocal criticism in the United States and offers little promise of major concessions by Beijing on such issues as human rights and weapons proliferation.
This will be the first trip to China by an American president since Chinese authorities killed hundreds of pro-democracy activists nine years ago. Amid easing tensions, China's President Jiang Zemin visited Washington last year.
Clinton's reciprocal visit also has set off anxiety on Taiwan, with which the United States has a deep, though now unofficial, friendship.
Clinton was forced to defend his China trip during his joint news conference yesterday with the president of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung.
The occasion was poignant, because Kim, 74, is himself a longtime fighter for democracy who endured exile and a death sentence for his activism and was all but shunned by American administrations that sought good relations with Seoul's then-authoritarian leadership.
"My own view is that if this is going to be a state visit to China, and I am going to be the guest of the Chinese, that they should be designing the terms of the arrival ceremony -- not me," Clinton said of the Tiananmen appearance.
The site, in front of Beijing's Great Hall of the People and adjacent to the square, is where Chinese leaders traditionally welcome guests.
Clinton also argued for the importance of visiting China now, citing the Asian financial turmoil and the recent nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, both of which are neighbors of China.
Despite this argument, White House officials acknowledge that trip planners have been under severe pressure to justify the trip because of the growing criticism of the president's China policy.
The furor over illegal foreign contributions to the Democrats in 1996 took a damaging turn for the White House with allegations that about $35,000 came from a branch of the Chinese military.
The White House also has been thrown onto the defensive by accusations that a decision by the president to overrule his Justice Department and allow for the questionable export of satellite technology may have aided China's missile development. Clinton granted a waiver that benefited a company headed by a major Democratic donor, Bernard L. Schwartz.
Clinton yesterday reiterated his defense of that decision, saying he was following a recommendation by his National Security Council staff, which disagreed with Justice Department objections.
"It was from my point of view, a pretty routine decision that I thought on balance, if all those agencies felt that it was the right thing to do and furthered our national interest, that I would do so."
But because of the criticism, the administration has scrapped plans to grant additional satellite-launch concessions to the Chinese. The concessions had been planned as an inducement to persuade China to sign an international agreement to prevent the spread of missile technology. Beijing has agreed to adhere to the accord but has refused to sign it.
The confluence of the satellite issue and the campaign finance investigation have created a "critical mass" of opposition, a senior administration official said: "We have more people to convince that we're right."
Also, a congressional hearing and series of news conferences Thursday, on the ninth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, focused a harsh spotlight on Chinese human rights violations. A hearing today is expected to assail the Chinese practice of coerced abortions.
Trip planners have faced added complications in trying to arrange meetings with ordinary Chinese. But Clinton officials may exclude well-known dissidents from these meetings out of concern that they might become targets of reprisals from Beijing.
Some human rights advocates say the administration could have extracted more concessions before the trip had they pressed the Chinese harder.
"To some extent, they've wasted the leverage that a summit provides," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch/Asia.
Administration officials insist that Clinton will use a speech at Beijing University to criticize China's human rights record. In a pre-summit gesture, China is expected to sign a United Nations covenant on human and political rights.
After the visit, China experts say Beijing may release Liu Nianchun, the only dissident still being held from a list of seven whose release has been sought by the United States.
To avoid problems with Taiwan, the administration will not engage in the common diplomatic practice of issuing a joint statement with the host country to summarize understandings reached during the trip.
At the end of Jiang's trip here in October, the two countries issued a joint statement that Taiwan saw as weakening America's support for the island.
Rather, each side will conclude the China visit with its own statement. This way, the United States will be able to avoid the perception that it has agreed to anything at Taiwan's expense.
Pub Date: 6/10/98