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China wins U.S. nod as next superpower

The president of China, an otherwise keen observer of Western ways, apparently never listened to that old Beatles number Money Can't Buy Me Love.

Or if he did, he no doubt decided early on that Britain's Fab Four got it all wrong as it applies to the United States. Because from the moment he set foot on American soil early this week, Jiang Zemin was dolling out the big money deals like nobody's business.

Obviously, Beijing's newest paramount leader was convinced that money does indeed buy him love or at least something he values just as much _ Washington's official certification that China, under his leadership, is the world's next great superpower.

And if anybody had any doubts on that score, America's imprimatur is exactly what Jiang got during his weeklong state visit, the first here by a Chinese leader in 12 years.

All you had to do was watch Jiang and President Clinton at their joint news conference the other day. The two men stood there as equals, each spinning out his views on how the world works without seeming to give an inch to the other.

Jiang was no visiting second-rater, no puffed-up wannabe trying to look more important than he really is. If anything, he was the one who seemed to get the best of this exchange because he was the one framing the arguments and putting his money on the table.

Clinton may have been unusually forthright on the subject of human rights, but Jiang and everyone else in the room knew the president wasn't going to do anything to back up his words in the real world. With that in mind, Jiang was probably more amused than anything else over Clinton's salvo that China was "on the wrong side of history" because of its human rights abuses.

It was no surprise then when the Chinese leader finally brushed aside all this annoying human rights talk with patently absurd _ and for many, offensive _ rejoinders comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln and invoking Einstein's theory of relativity. He figured he could get away with it, and he did.

In any case, Jiang knew that all the negatives _ about human rights, Tiananmen Square or unfair trade practices _ were being edited out before the Chinese people back home got to see any of this on television. For them, Jiang's march through Washington and six other U.S. cities would be nothing but triumphal.

Which, from Jiang's point of view, was a major point of this exercise.

And in Chinese terms, the price of this diplomatic coup was relatively low.

Beijing's $3-billion contract for 50 airliners might seem like a big deal to the chief of the Boeing Corp., or the people of Seattle, but it's not such a big thing for a country the size of China. It needed to buy the planes somewhere, and most experts agree that Boeing makes planes as good or better than anybody else's, including Europe's much-touted Airbus Industrie.

The same logic applies to opening up China's market for American-made nuclear power plants. With 1.2-billion people, little petroleum of its own and an antiquated power generation system based on burning highly polluting soft coal, China needs to take a radical step into the 21st century, and quickly.

American companies such as Westinghouse and General Electric figure they have just what China needs, the product of an $870-million industry-government joint venture to develop a new generation of low-cost and safe reactors. And since they have been unable to sell a single nuclear power station in the United States since 1973, what better salvation for an ailing industry than the vast China market, estimated at between $50-billion and $70-billion.

The Europeans and Japanese already were angling for a piece of this market with their own advanced nuclear power designs. Now American companies have a shot at it too thanks to Clinton's controversial certification that China isn't giving nuclear weapons secrets to people the United States doesn't want to have them.

Whatever the skeptics in Congress might think about this certification _ and many of them think it's irresponsible _ Clinton no doubt did his calculations. People may be skeptical of China's flimsy assurances on nuclear weapons, but who wants to sabotage Westinghouse and General Electric _ or the American workers who depend on them for jobs.

It's exactly the kind of thinking Jiang Zemin can appreciate.

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