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Legislators rebuke China's president

A day after his summit meeting with President Clinton, Jiang Zemin, the Chinese president, endured a grilling on Capitol Hill by legislators from both parties who questioned him sharply about human rights, nuclear proliferation, religious freedom and forced abortion.

Jiang faced off with some of his most severe official critics Thursday over breakfast in a wood-paneled Senate conference room under a portrait of George Washington. He told some 50 members of Congress that since the opening of China's economy in the 1980s, "the Chinese people have enjoyed a much better life."

Jiang pledged that China will "expand democracy, improve the legal system, run the country according to law and build a socialist market economy."

But Senate and House members of both parties, sitting at long tables in front of him, brushed those statements aside to focus on China's human-rights policies. Several presented Jiang with lists of political and religious prisoners for release.

Like so many of the American-Chinese summit events, the most remarkable part of this meeting was that it took place. Many congressional critics of Beijing have spent the last year accusing the Clinton administration of trying to improve relations with China without getting concessions on human rights and other issues.

Members of Congress said after the meeting with Jiang that he gave no ground on rights issues, denying his country forced abortions and insisting religious liberty existed. But he also let the unusual exchange last 90 minutes, half an hour more than scheduled.

"In my view, the responses were evasive," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a China critic.

Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the speaker of the House, was far less harsh. "We have things we disagree on and that's legitimate," he said. "We have expectations that are not always going to be met on either side. But I do think the framework of a peaceful evolution of this relationship was there."

Jiang's visit to the Capitol came a day after a summit meeting with Clinton, the first between the United States and China since the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing in 1989. Afterward he gave a speech to Asia experts, then continued his tour with stops in Philadelphia and New York.

In his luncheon address, Jiang gave a spirited defense of China's policies, including the standard argument over Tibet. Far from being an oppressive power in Tibet, he argued, China actually freed Tibetans from a nearly feudal system that had enslaved some 1-million "serfs and slaves."

"This, similar to the liberation of black slaves in American history, represented a great social change and advance," he said.

And in some of his last words in Washington he reiterated his longstanding position on human rights: "As a developing country of 1.2-billion people, China's very reality determines that the right of subsistence and development is the most fundamental and most important human right in China. Before adequate food and clothing is insured for the people, the enjoyment of other rights would be out of the question."

He also promised that China would open up its economy, turn government-owned enterprises over to private ownership and "open China still wider to the outside world."

Then Jiang outlined what he called the guidelines to improving U.S.-China relations, accenting Taiwan and arguing that Taiwan should be part of China much like Hong Kong.

Despite the day's sharp exchanges over human rights, some lawmakers saw signs of a thaw in relations. "I'm not sure everybody believed in the assertions he made," said Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., D-Del., the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. But he said "there was a change in atmospherics and maybe an attitudinal change where at least, he, the president, recognizes that China's interests are better served by some accommodation."