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Monday, June 29, 1998 Published at 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK

A breakthrough for Chinese glasnost?

The Clinton-Jiang press conference was broadcast live in China

Chinese Affairs analyst James Miles looks at the implications of China's decision to allow President Clinton's comments on human rights and other issues to be broadcast live to the Chinese nation - a decision which delighted American officials:

[ image: Is China playing a different tune just to impress its guests]
Is China playing a different tune just to impress its guests
Chinese television viewers must have been amazed to turn on their sets on Saturday to see President Clinton and his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin publicly airing their differences on human rights and the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests nine years ago.

No less remarkable was the authorities' decision on Monday to give Mr Clinton a second chance to talk directly to the nation about human rights in a live broadcast.

The Americans had been urging their hosts to allow such broadcasts, but there was certainly no protocol requirement that the Chinese agree to do so.

American officials had indicated before Mr Clinton's arrival in China that the Chinese were doubtful about the suggestion.

'Toumingdu': Chinese for 'glasnost'

[ image: The Chinese authorities have allowed a measure of glasnost]
The Chinese authorities have allowed a measure of glasnost
In the end, however, the Chinese leadership decided to allow a measure of glasnost - or "toumingdu" as the Chinese call it - never before seen in the country's diplomatic affairs.

The question that Chinese television viewers might now be asking is whether this was merely a temporary expedient in a complex diplomatic game, or whether it signalled a genuine willingness to allow more open debate.

Arranging the live broadcasts was certainly not a major risk for the Chinese authorities. They knew that President Clinton did not want to embarrass his hosts to the extent that overall relations might be soured.

They also knew they could keep the audience size down by not announcing in advance that his words would be broadcast live.

[ image: No second chance: more sensitive comments were ommited from repeats of the press conference]
No second chance: more sensitive comments were ommited from repeats of the press conference
For those who missed the broadcasts, there would be no second chance. Mr Clinton's more sensitive remarks were omitted from subsequent reports carried by the official media.

But there was still a degree of risk in allowing President Clinton to share his views directly with the nation.

New 'Beijing spring'?

By giving Mr Clinton the chance to say straight to Jiang Zemin's face that the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests was wrong, there was a risk that political dissidents might feel that public debate about Tiananmen was being sanctioned.

In recent months, President Jiang has shown signs of greater tolerance. Dissidents are still being harassed, but with somewhat less heavy-handedness than before. It's now more acceptable to discuss political reform, as long as it doesnt mean getting rid of one-party rule. The Western media have started referring to this apparent easing of controls as a "Beijing Spring."

China has seen "Beijing Springs" before. They have usually lasted a few months at most and have ended in renewed repression.

But Clinton administration officials are hoping that this one at least will convince their critics at home that positive change can occur in China without the imposition of sanctions and other forms of diplomatic punishment.

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