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My Dinner with Jiang

7 minute read
Norman Pearlstine

My first memories of China go back almost 50 years. Sitting in front of our 10-in. Philco television, over milk and peanut-butter sandwiches, my closest third-grade friends and I watched, with fascination and terror, the grainy news footage of Chinese soldiers crossing the Yalu River into Korea. It was 1950, the year after Mao Zedong and the communists had taken control of China, exiling General Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party to Taiwan. And now they were fighting us.

That fascination and terror would grow in the decade to come as I, and millions of other Americans, grew up reading Henry Luce’s TIME. It was Luce, born in China to Presbyterian missionaries, whose powerful newsweekly most demonized Mao and, by extension, all of what became known as Red China. Later, in the 1970s, I lived in Hong Kong, where, peering across the border, I had the chance to observe Mao’s last days, when the notorious Gang of Four reduced China to chaos and near anarchy. I thought then that Luce was probably right. China was a country that couldn’t be trusted, as an ally or as a competitor, and the diplomats who thought otherwise, preferring what we now call “constructive engagement” to containment, were making a mistake.

Those thoughts and emotions came rushing back earlier this month after I flew to Beijing for a remarkable three-hour dinner with Jiang Zemin, China’s President and General Secretary of the Communist Party. Driving into the Diaoyutai State Guest House, where Henry Kissinger’s secret meetings paved the way for Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, I realized how much China and its leadership had changed and how much America had not–how often we still see China through Luce’s eyes.

China has done much to liberalize its economy and its society in the years since I lived in Hong Kong. While the garishly lit skyscrapers of Beijing and Shanghai may mask continuing poverty, China has begun to cast off the worst vestiges of communism. On the international front, Beijing has sometimes been helpful, trying to cool tensions between India and Pakistan, keeping North Korean military ambitions in check and usually abstaining (rather than voting no) on U.N. ballots to use force in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans.

Nonetheless, when Americans think of China these days, the themes are often bleak: its crackdowns on dissidents, its harsh and sometimes coercive enforcement of the one-child policy, its continued military posturing against Taiwan, its alleged snooping for information about high tech for its military and its efforts to influence U.S. elections with illegal campaign contributions. When Bill Clinton first ran for President, he repeatedly called George Bush soft on China. Now, of course, it is the Republicans who say that about Clinton. The danger in this moralistic condemnation of China is that we hurt ourselves while missing the opportunity to help China solve its problems.

My dinner with President Jiang began in a large, formal sitting area with obligatory tea and a brief photo op for the Chinese press. A few minutes later, we adjourned to a more private dining area, where, at his urging, we removed our jackets so we could better enjoy a nine-course dinner (including shark’s fin soup, “Assorted Foods in Hot Pot,” coconut juice and “Bird’s Nest”) and more serious drink. Jiang is warm and witty, and he has a wonderful voice that ranges–both in Chinese and in his near fluent English–from low and deep to high pitched and animated when he gets worked up over an idea or a joke. He is a good listener, leaning back in his chair with a cocked head, leaning forward to respond. His eyes were full of mirth throughout the evening.

His lifelong curiosity about the U.S. was also in evidence. When discussing the equality of mankind, he quoted parts of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He still remembers the English-language textbooks he used when studying to become an engineer. He recalled fondly his 1997 trip to the New York Stock Exchange, where he rang the opening bell. And, showing his mastery of my biography, he chided me for not bringing my wife, author Nancy Friday, saying it would have been more interesting to discuss her subjects–envy, jealousy, relationships and sex–than mine–economics and geopolitics.

But beyond the banter, Jiang was ready to respond to America’s complaints. He said he understood the value of a free press “so long as the media does not distort the facts.” While professing close relations with President Clinton, he expressed frustration with the squabbling over China policy that divides much of Washington. He complained that America wants to sell China products it doesn’t need while restricting sales of some things it wants to buy. “If you sell us high-technology products, we will pay you royalties,” he said, but warned that if we refuse to sell such products to China, it will buy them elsewhere or build them itself. “The Chinese are very smart. On our own, we developed the hydrogen and atom bombs. If you refuse to sell us satellites and other new high-tech products, we may be able to develop them by ourselves. And then we won’t have to purchase yours.”

Jiang’s real focus, however, is not on these issues. It is on the domestic economy. He, Premier Zhu Rongji and the leadership around them are worried that without continued high growth, China might revert to the chaos he witnessed during the Cultural Revolution. “It’s the economy, stupid!” could just as easily be Jiang’s mantra as Clinton’s. His prescription–which sometimes strikes me as too much of a contradiction in terms to work–is for a “socialist market economy,” in which free markets and free ideas are encouraged until things get boisterous or too messy. Then central planners step in, and there are crackdowns on profiteers and dissidents until things settle down.

If China gets the economy right, Jiang believes, everything else will work out. America, he implies, would see a society it can embrace. But he acknowledges that China’s problems are huge. Unemployment in the cities is at record levels and is getting worse. Many of the people who do work are employed in inefficient state-owned enterprises, which Jiang and Zhu have vowed to phase out. Jiang realizes that the phase-out has to be handled carefully, since there is no national unemployment insurance or pension system and no money to fund such programs. Already there has been unrest, as worried farmers and workers struggle with the new order.

Chinese planners say they need annual growth of 8% to make progress on their problems, and they acknowledge that growth fell below that level last year. Though there is pressure on China to devalue its currency–a cheaper renminbi would help revitalize exports–Jiang insisted that “the currency will stay stable. At the moment I can still feel confident about this.”

While recognizing how much China still needs to accomplish, Jiang, 72, is beginning to think about his legacy and about the leaders who will follow him. In the two decades since the socialist market economy was introduced, “we have embarked on a new era,” he said. “Deng Xiaoping taught us that China needs to open its doors and establish economic links with the capitalist, developed world.”

China may not always operate in ways that please us, and a three-hour dinner, no matter how candid the conversation, will never answer all one’s questions. But it is important that we come to view China as more ally than enemy. The stronger China becomes economically, the better it will be for both our countries.

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