WASHINGTON -- The positive aura of President Clinton's visit to China hasn't muzzled his Capitol Hill critics, but China experts say it may quiet them long enough for diplomats to make progress on issues ranging from nuclear proliferation to the Asian economic crisis.
In the face of a drumbeat of criticism from Republicans, human rights advocates and some Democrats, Clinton made a point of challenging his Chinese hosts on their repressive policies while also promoting trade and economic issues.
Most impressive, even critics agreed, was the symbolism of Clinton debating human rights policies at a news conference with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
"The fact that they allowed him to have this televised [debate], no holds barred, was a pretty good deal," said Rep. Tony P. Hall, an Ohio Democrat and human rights activist who has been critical of the president's accommodation to China. "I was very surprised at that. It probably surprised everybody, especially people who consider themselves human rights advocates."
But while the president's critics conceded that the trip has gone well from a public relations standpoint, most continue to carp. The symbolism of an open debate on human rights was overwhelmed, they said, by the symbolism of his martial welcome at Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 pro-democracy protest that brought a bloody crackdown by the government.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, one of Clinton's fiercest Democratic critics, said Clinton's overtures may do more harm than good, lulling Americans into believing he is standing up against Chinese repression while dissidents languish in prison.
"It's a telling sign of our low expectations that we're having to celebrate a president saying the use of force in Tiananmen Square was wrong," she said.
Rep. Sue Myrick, a North Carolina Republican, agreed.
"He could have said more, delivered a much stronger message," said Myrick, who articulates the views of the House GOP leadership on China policy. "As long as he speaks out boldly, that could calm criticism. But when he doesn't say anything that has any teeth in it, there's going to be criticism."
But the positive press Clinton has received during his China visit will likely take away the sting of these attacks -- at least for a while, China experts say.
That will give the president the political cover he needs, they predict, to pursue substantive agreements on issues such as nuclear proliferation in India, Pakistan and North Korea, the Asian economic crisis and human rights.
Before Clinton's departure, some feared his trip could worsen relations with China while yielding no progress on human rights or other issues. Instead, the climate seems to have improved.
"The hard right is going to shoot off their mouths, but he's turned the tables on them. Pick up a newspaper. Look at a TV station. He's getting the images he wants to the American public," said James Lilley, ambassador to China during the Bush administration. "And a summit like this establishes a better climate within which you can really work."
Winston Lord, a former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration for East Asia and the Pacific, offered a similar view. "He can lower the decibel count of his domestic critics and allow people to focus on substantive reasons for engagement" with China, Lord said.
Few China watchers seem completely satisfied with Clinton's performance. Though he gave Clinton generally high marks, Lord said the president has tended to err on the side of politeness.
Clinton should have repeated his references to the massacre at Tiananmen Square when he visited Beijing University yesterday, Lord said. And he should have mentioned by name Wang Dan, the Beijing University student who helped lead the Tiananmen rebellion and is exiled in the United States.
Li Xiaorong, a University of Maryland scholar and human rights activist, said Clinton's comments were so general that their message may have been lost in translation to the Chinese people.
"He really has done the least that was expected," she said. "He could not do less and still be received by the American public."
But she and other experts said Americans should judge the impact of Clinton's trip not by how it plays in the United States but how a new sense of openness ripples through Chinese society.
Clinton's officially sanctioned display of openness could encourage the Chinese to speak out on human rights, she said. "It could not be such a crime to say you agree with Clinton, when Clinton was so royally received and was allowed to speak on state-sanctioned TV."
In some ways, the barrage of criticism from Congress may have strengthened Clinton's hand, Rep. Hall said. By going to China, the president showed Chinese officials he was willing to stare down his opponents in the interest of improving relations with their country. That may have persuaded the Chinese to give something in return.
Critics "gave him the freedom to speak out that somebody else might not have gotten," said Hall, a longtime human rights advocate. "Only time will tell whether the president's trip was successful on human rights, but so far, he's doing a good job of raising the issues that needed to be raised."
Pub Date: 6/30/98