Once President Clinton decided to visit China next month, it probably was inevitable he would step into Tiananmen Square, the historic plaza that Americans equate with China's deadly anti-democratic ways.

Inevitable, too, that he would step into a storm of criticism from those who say he should boycott Tiananmen.For most Americans, Tiananmen is a reminder of June 4, 1989, the day People's Liberation Army tanks and troops crushed a student demonstration for democratic change.

For the Chinese - both the communist leadership and the ordinary person - Tiananmen Square has a much broader symbolic meaning. It was from a balcony at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, overlooking the vast plaza, that Mao Tse-tung declared victory in the communist revolution of October 1949 that installed his regime.

"This square stands for China and 5,000 years of history," said David Lampton, president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. "Were Clinton to fail to go there it would be more an insult to the Chinese people than a reminder of a single incident."

Clinton is reciprocating for a visit to the United States last fall by Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Clinton will open his trip June 25 with a stop in the ancient city of Xian, the first imperial Chinese capital and home to the tomb of the terra cotta warriors, the 7,000 life-size figures that were arranged in formations to protect the tomb of Emperor Qin Shihuang.

Once in Beijing, Clinton will attend a formal welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square. It is this moment, critics say, that will amount to a stinging insult to those young Chinese who nine years ago dared stand up for democracy and defy the authorities.

Hundreds were killed that day. Many more were imprisoned, and hundreds remain incarcerated today. Also victimized were U.S.-China relations.