President Jiang Zemin, the first Chinese head of state ever to visit Britain, arrived in London Monday to find the Daily Telegraph describing him in a profile as an “insipid man who inspires indifference.” But not for everyone. The Telegraph also said that his visit “is likely to rank with those of Nicolae Ceaucescu and Emperor Hirohito of Japan as among the most controversial of the Queen’s reign.” It said it would be “the focus of large demonstrations against China’s suppression of human rights and its occupation of Tibet.” The paper noted that “British officials still have no idea whether he will be furious and cut short his program, or whether he will ride out the protests as he did in America last year.”
In Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post reported that Falun Gong, the spiritual cult recently banned by the Chinese government, planned to carry out spiritual exercises in London throughout the president’s visit to show him how peaceful the group is. “We hope to be able to practise all five of our exercises,” one of the organizers told the paper. “If it is raining, we may not be able to do all of them because some require us to sit on the ground.” Falun Gong is seeking permission to hold a candlelight vigil in the center of London Tuesday night while the queen is hosting a banquet for Jiang at Buckingham Palace. The SCMP said, however, that larger demonstrations were expected in France when Jiang goes there at the end of the week. It quoted Shui Li, chairman of the British branch of the Federation of Democratic China, as saying, “France will be a key country to hold protests because there are a lot of Chinese dissidents there and a larger Chinese population.”
Improbably, China Daily’s main angle on Jiang’s visit to Britain was that it would “bring brighter prospects to the British financial service industry.” This was how the official government newspaper introduced an interview with the British ambassador in Beijing, who said Britain was “very keen” that China should join the World Trade Organization before the end of the year. The ambassador overenthusiastically described the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese as “the most successful joint venture we have ever done with China or anybody else.” In an editorial Monday, the Financial Times of London also supported China’s renewed bid to join the WTO but said that Europe should speak more firmly to Jiang about security and human rights.
The FT said that since “the US consensus behind its role on the global stage is weakening,” Europeans should no longer be content “to let the US take the lead in handling China.” The SCMP ran an article by its Washington correspondent saying that the next few weeks would be “pivotal” in U.S. relations with Beijing. “If successful, working visits to Beijing by US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering could go a long way in getting day-to-day links back to the level they were before Nato’s bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade,” the paper said. But it quoted senior administration officials as saying that the situation was still “highly fragile.” One said, “In some ways we feel like recovering alcoholics. We are taking everything just one day at a time.”
President Jiang told the Times of London in an interview that his recent meeting in New Zealand with President Bill Clinton had been “positive and constructive” and “very important for the improvement and development of China-US relations.” But he said the United States “must take further action to remove all the severe negative effects of the bombing” and must “stop its arms sales to Taiwan, and refrain from creating new obstacles on the question of Taiwan.” (On Sunday, the Observer of London reported that NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade because it wanted to send a signal to the Yugoslav army. It said that the embassy was originally on a list of prohibited targets but was removed after NATO forces discovered it was operating as a Yugoslav army re-broadcasting station.)
In the same interview with William Rees-Mogg, a former editor of the Times, Jiang claimed to have been a “good friend” of the former Panchen Lama of Tibet and, after his death, said he went to his temple there and–“despite the thin air”–spent an hour meditating about his life. But this didn’t prevent him taking an unyielding line on the Tibet issue. Another subject broached by the Chinese president was the future of the Internet. He described it has having great advantages for a country the size of China, but said he hoped that this generation would be able to protect its grandchildren from things on the Internet that “are not good.” He also said that “no matter how quickly the internet develops, it can never take the place of the relationship between people … computers are machines, and machines don’t have feelings.”
These themes were also debated Sunday night in an interview with Bill Gates on BBC television. Questioned by Jeremy Paxman, one of Britain’s leading TV interviewers, Gates said that “none of the work being done on software today holds the potential to create a truly intelligent device,” but he was less reassuring about protecting the young against stuff that was “not good.” While he wanted Microsoft’s software to be used for things that are “positive and good,” he admitted that he didn’t “have control over exactly how that’s done.” (But what’s “not good”? Paxman was talking about pornography; Jiang may well have been thinking about Falun Gong.) In an article for the Sunday Telegraph on the day of the interview, Paxman wrote that he found it “quite impossible to reconcile this public Gates [fabulously rich, powerful, and therefore an object of much hatred] with the awkward, shy, nasal character I found seated opposite me.”