BEIJING -- Nine years after tanks rolled through this city to crush a pro-democracy movement at a cost of hundreds of lives, Bill Clinton today became the first U.S. president to visit (P Tiananmen Square, the site of the bloody crackdown.
Staring out across Tiananmen -- a sprawling expanse of concrete that covers about 100 acres -- Clinton stood quietly, occasionally smiling and mopping his brow in the 86-degree morning heat, as Chinese President Jiang Zemin briefly welcomed him to China's capital for this weekend's summit.
Neither leader made any public comments.
The event symbolized the continuing warming of relations between the world's most powerful nation and its most populous one. Ties had frayed after the 1989 massacre in which tanks and soldiers fired on unarmed demonstrators.
Today's ceremony was marred when Chinese police, for what they called "security concerns," hustled thousands of people out of viewing areas across the square where they had hoped to get their first glimpse of America's president. Carrying cameras and water bottles, the crowds walked dejectedly away as if they had been evicted from a picnic.
"What does the American president look like?" asked a disappointed 11-year-old boy, who wore the jacket of a man's gray suit with the sleeves rolled up. "Listening is not enough."
"This is similar to June 4th," said a middle-aged, laid-off worker, referring to the date of the crackdown in 1989. "The policemen are driving people away."
Like most of the Chinese interviewed today, neither the boy nor the man gave their names. Plainclothes police listened as the two spoke to a foreigner, then followed them for several blocks. Uniformed police cleared the area around the square so thoroughly that few could see the ceremony.
Clinton's visit to Tiananmen -- he actually stood at the western edge of the square -- has been criticized by members of Congress and the American public who feel his presence there sends the wrong message about Chinese human rights.
China traditionally welcomes foreign leaders at Tiananmen, the nation's political epicenter. Clinton has said he did not think he should tell his hosts where or how they should greet him.
The president arrived before 9 a.m. at the Great Hall of the People -- China's hulking, communist-style parliament building that overlooks the square -- and walked along a red carpet shaking hands with Chinese officials. Later, the People's Liberation Army gave him a 21-gun salute.
Standing next to Jiang, Clinton wore a sober expression and placed his hand over his heart as a Chinese military band played the "Star-Spangled Banner."
Before him, in the middle of the square, stood the Monument to the People's Heroes, a towering obelisk which honors China's revolutionary tradition. Early the morning of June 4, 1989, several thousand student demonstrators sat huddled around the monument as soldiers and tanks closed in.
To the president's right stood Mao Tse-tung's mausoleum, where the body of the People's Republic of China's first leader lies inside a crystal sarcophagus. And to his left stood the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the red imperial gate from which Mao's portrait hangs.
The decision for police to clear the area not only disappointed thousands of Chinese, who had been told they could come and watch, but also a few American tourists who had hoped to catch a glimpse of their president. Chris Peterson, 23, of Salt Lake City is on a six-month trip around the world. When he tried to approach the Great Hall of the People, police turned him back.
"I think it's rude," said Peterson. "If [Clinton's] doing the service to even come to Tiananmen Square, it would be more than fair of them to reciprocate some sense of good feeling and allow a community gathering to see the event."
Peterson said he didn't think Clinton's security was the issue: "It's the security of the regime, especially so close to the anniversary of when they killed people here."
China's people did not even get to watch the welcoming ceremony live on TV. The national network ran what appeared to be a musical-variety show instead.
Although Clinton has been in China less than 48 hours, human rights has already been a hot topic on his nine-day visit. In the ancient capital of Xian, where Clinton spent yesterday, Chinese authorities reportedly detained and released at least two dissidents.
Asked about the news, Clinton offered measured criticism.
"I found the reports disturbing. If true, they represent not China at its best and not China looking forward, but looking backward," Clinton said. "One of the reasons that I came here was to discuss both privately and publicly issues of personal freedom."
China reacted quickly.
"We are opposed to any foreign country using the human rights issue as a pretext to interfere in China's internal affairs," a government spokesman said. China has denied making arrests, but did not mention detentions.
Pub Date: 6/27/98