The Film

The New York Times
June 20, 1998

Preparation Builds for Clinton's Trip to China

John M. Broder

Among the learned volumes and fat briefing books on China piled by President Clinton's bedside to prepare him for his trip next week is a videocassette of "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," a gripping three-hour documentary about the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of June 1989.

There are many lessons in the film, which takes a cold-eyed look at the weeks of pro-democracy protests and the June 4 massacre that brought them to a sudden end.

Perhaps the most profound lesson is expressed by a teacher who warned his students before the protests about the tactics of the demonstrators, knowing that the government would not tolerate usurpation of China's most sacred public place. Progress toward a more open and tolerant society in China would come only gradually, the professor said, and with much pain.

"History is this kind of process," he told the filmmakers, Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon. "There's no way to sort things out neatly."

This is the heart of the message that the president's advisers have been pressing on Clinton as they subject him to a crash course on China's culture, its recent history and the fragile state of United States-China relations. Do not ask too much, nor expect too much, from a single visit, they advise. It is but one step on a long journey.

The presidential seminar has been unusually compressed, with much of the serious work yet to be done as Clinton and his huge entourage prepare to depart for China on Wednesday. The trip, originally set for late fall, was moved up to reward China for perceived progress on human rights and to put Clinton on display on the international stage as a distraction from domestic personal and political difficulties.

The preparation of the president is being conducted chiefly by his national security adviser, Samuel Berger, assisted by numerous specialists from throughout the government, think tanks and academia.

In recent weeks Berger's office has been deluged with solicited and unsolicited advice from Congress, interest groups, business organizations and China experts.

One overwhelmed senior White House adviser doing preparatory work said he receives 40 phone messages and 40 faxes a day but answers only the most urgent. "We're engaged in heavy triage here," the aide said.

In addition to the contributions from outsiders, the White House has received a torrent of background papers from the State, Defense, Commerce and Agriculture departments, the Central Intelligence Agency and the trade representative's office. All have to be distilled into the material that will be presented to the president.

Aides involved in preparing the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton do not know (or will not say) whether the Clintons have plowed through the voluminous material they have already received. As is his custom, Clinton is not likely to begin cramming for the trip until just before his departure. And he will have 16 hours aboard Air Force One en route to his first stop, in Xian, to study.

While government China experts have been toiling virtually around the clock to complete the details of the trip, the president's attention has been only episodic, according to one senior official involved in the planning.

He consulted with aides before delivering a major address on China policy at the National Geographic Society on June 11. He spent an hour on Thursday meeting with religious leaders who recently returned from a visit to China to observe the progress toward religious freedom there.

But he also had to make time to attend political fund-raisers, to monitor the collapse of antismoking legislation and to socialize with journalists at a White House picnic. He travels to Nashville, Tenn., on Monday to speak at a conference on the American family.

The real crunch begins early next week, when the president is to meet privately with a group of China scholars and other experts, aides said. But no time has been set for the meeting and no invitations have gone out, they added, and Clinton may not find time for a final review session with outsiders before his departure.

Among those the president has consulted in the past are Harry Harding of George Washington University, Kenneth Lieberthal of the University of Michigan, Nicholas Lardy of the Brookings Institution, Michael Swaine of the Rand Corp., Merle Goldman of Boston University and Richard Solomon of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

While Clinton's classwork centers chiefly on substantive issues -- missile proliferation, human rights, Asia's economic troubles -- he is also being briefed on matters of protocol and the behavior expected of a visiting head of state.

The White House does not want to repeat an ugly incident that marred the last presidential visit to China, President Bush's two-day trip to Beijing in February 1989. The White House invited a prominent dissident, Fang Lizhi, to a banquet and then stood helplessly by as Chinese authorities forcibly prevented Fang from attending.

The U.S. blunder and the Chinese reaction could have been anticipated if Bush had been more sensitive to his host's needs, according to Robert Kapp, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, who has studied and worked in China for decades.

"Understand, China is a place where for 5,000 years the correctness of your behavior depends on the role you are playing," Kapp said. "The role of foreign guest is very formalized, with a series of conventions on both sides. He must show respect for his hosts, and while he may speak bluntly about his concerns, he must do so in a way that allows the Chinese to maintain their dignity."

Accordingly, there is no public meeting with dissidents on Clinton's schedule. But aides suggest that the president will find a way to quietly visit with outspoken opponents of the government.

"Most people don't respond very well to threats and to isolation," Clinton said in brief appearance at the White House Friday.

White House aides marvel at how quickly the president learns his brief and steps into his prescribed role. While they are under intense pressure to complete the preparation before the nine-day trip, Clinton appears blithely unconcerned about the grueling public schedule he faces and its potential pitfalls.

"I think he thrives on that kind of thing," one senior White House official involved in the preparations said. "It's like an actor before a big performance -- the whole phase of being down before the curtain comes up, and then going on and putting on the show."

© 1998 The New York Times Company

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