Dogged by scandal and his influence waning in Congress, President Clinton goes to China Wednesday for a visit that may be long on symbolism but short on breakthroughs.
Clinton's trip has generated more ill will than any foreign visit in recent memory. Members of Congress have flayed him for agreeing to attend a welcome ceremony at Tiananmen Square, scene of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.They have charged that his policies on satellite launches benefited a major campaign contributor, compromised national security and improved China's missile capabilities.
What is more, in contrast to last October when he greeted Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Washington from a position of strength, Clinton is also under investigation over allegations he had an affair with a former White House intern and then urged her to lie under oath about it.
And Congress is increasingly resistant to his proposals, as in last week's death of anti-smoking legislation that was his major priority of the year.
"Clearly his position going into the trip is weaker than it would be if he had no political damage - if he was where he was three years ago," said a senior White House official.
Clinton sees his nine-day visit as testimony to his insistence that reaching out a hand to China is the best way to coax gradual change on burning issues like human rights, democracy, missile control and more open trade.
"We tend to get more done when we work with people, when we disagree with them openly, when we push them and when they have something to gain by working with us," he said Friday.
"The more we bring China into the world, the more the world will bring freedom to China," he wrote in an article published in Newsweek magazine Sunday.
"China's leaders must understand that China will only reach its full potential if its people are allowed to reach theirs. . . . America will continue to urge China's leaders to move to the right side of history when it comes to human rights and freedom of religion. Over the past year we have seen some real progress - though far from enough," he added.
As well as pressing them to improve human rights, Clinton will ask the Chinese leadership to do more to stop missiles and missile technology falling into the hands of rogue states, and to break down barriers to foreign trade.
That having been said, there has been little sign from White House officials that they are anticipating major breakthroughs on policy differences, other than a possible post-Cold War deal for both sides to stop targeting nuclear missiles at each other.
"Sometimes we find that the results of these trips with the Chinese happen after we leave," said White House National Security Ad-viser Sandy Berger.
Said another U.S. official: "This is an important trip for the symbolic relationship between the two countries."
Nicholas Lardy, a China expert at the Brookings Institution think tank, said the White House has been trying to reduce expectations for big breakthroughs because of fears of promising too much.
"The big problem with the Chinese is you never know until the last minute what you're going to get," he said.
Many members of Congress and experts on China are urging Clinton to take a more aggressive approach.
California Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, whose district includes Chinatown in San Francisco, said Clinton's policy is a failure on all fronts.
She cited a trade deficit ballooning to $63 billion this year, Chinese sale of missiles to new nuclear power Pakistan, and more than 2,000 political dissidents being held in Chinese prisons, including 250 arrested after Tiananmen Square.
"The situation is getting worse, not better, and we are in serious need of a new U.S.-China policy of honest, effective and sustainable engagement," she said in arguing that Congress should revoke most-favored-nation trade status for the Chinese.
Janet Heininger, a Chinese expert at American University in Washington, said Clinton was playing into the hands of the Chinese by going to Tiananmen Square because it would be seen there as a symbolic repairing of relations ruptured by the 1989 massacre.
"From the Chinese perspective, they've already won. They've gotten what they wanted out of the trip - in essence a sweeping under the carpet of what happened nine years ago. The Chinese are far more interested in face and symbolism than we are," she said.
Clinton will tour the sights of China - the terra-cotta warriors in the ancient capital of Xian, Bei-jing's Forbidden City, which is the former residence of China's emperors, and the Great Wall. He also will visit Shanghai, the natural splendor of Guilin and Hong Kong.
Steve Yates, a China expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank, said Clinton should make missile control a top priority.
"If it's really planned as more of a tour of China to demonstrate that the president's policies have brought about all these important changes in China, it's missed the reason for what a summit is all about," he said.