In truth, a lot of people in this most populated country on Earth don't really know much about Bill Clinton.
He'd probably be horrified to know how many of the cheerful, friendly people in this city of 6.5 million (it once was the biggest city in the world, bigger in influence than Rome during the height of the Roman Empire) seem to connect his name with that of Monica Lewinsky.They don't know all the details (who does?), and some wondered openly if they'd see Lewinsky on Clinton's trip. Even in the villages fringing China's 350 cities, they get cable TV and they know that the Lewinsky episode is something like "Baywatch."
But they are proud President Clinton came to visit Xian, Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin and Hong Kong. They think China has been shortchanged in getting its fair share of laurels lately and they think Clinton's nine-day visit will help.
They think that now that Clinton has been feted, paraded through the streets in the company of China's leaders and accepted the golden keys to their cities, that the world will acknowledge that China is the most important country. And Clinton has come close, noting that in the next few decades its economy will be the world's biggest.
They think that now that Hillary Rodham Clinton (they know she has power; they're not exactly certain what it is) has trod on their red carpets in stylish pant suits, kissed their adored babies and acknowledged the beauty of the Orient, everybody will know that China's the best.
Here in Xian, people were thrilled to see the streets cleaned and the city spruced up before Clinton's arrival, to see Clinton gaze spellbound at the dancers assembled in colorful spectacle for him, to see Hillary's trademark nod of delight and approval. Over and over, people cite the Chinese saying: "Isn't it a delight to have friends visit from afar!"
When Clinton kept referring to China's promise of tomorrow and referred to its people's greatness, they were polite. No cheering. No applause.
That was code for his pitch for democracy, followed by his other message, his subtle suggestion that teaching children, caring for the environment and building a just society and a more peaceful world are universal concerns.
But China is not a democracy and its people as yet don't understand Clinton's code words. They are starting the motions of holding elections without grasping the full, messy ramifications. They are healthier, happier, better educated and economically more prosperous than ever; but the slow if inexorable slide to democracy and a market economy will be disruptive and painful for some, as it has been in Russia.
Longtime factory workers are out of work because of privatization. Pollution is a monumental problem (the dirty, foul-smelling air of China's big cities makes the air in Los Angeles seem like paradise). As more families break the law and start having more than one child, the implications for China's 1.2 billion population are staggering. Where will all the new people live? How will they live?
In a single day there were three quick reminders of how little freedom is understood here:
- The Beijing cultural authority denied permission at the last minute for an acting troupe to take a 400-year-old Chinese play to New York's Lincoln Center on grounds the play was feudal, superstitious and mildly pornographic.
- Three staff members of Radio Free Asia were refused visas to travel to China with Clinton's 1,000-plus entourage.
- A leading dissident was arrested in Xian and low-scale vendors were thrust out of streets far removed from Clinton's paths.
Xia He, the "model" village of 374 people with whom Clinton chatted, elected a mayor in 1995 but did not start to thrive until Clinton's people decided he would visit. The people were astonished that brick walls were rebuilt, gutters were cleaned, green foliage and marigolds suddenly appeared on the dusty streets.
Likewise, the Muslim mosque, touted to him to show alleged tolerance for religion, is centuries old and in decline. Even for a presidential visit, nothing major was done to refurbish it.
Is Clinton being used? Of course. Once Clinton decided to take his family to China (they brought Chelsea, too), that was a given.
Clinton won't embarrass the Chinese, and the suggestions he makes about human rights, non-proliferation, pollution and slave labor will largely be ignored until it serves the interest of China's leaders to deal with them. For now China wants U.S. help in its 12-year crusade to join the World Trade Organization and a renewed commitment that the United States will curtail arms sales to Taiwan and continue to oppose independence for Taiwan, which China claims.
For China, a country with a history that goes back 5,000 years, dealing with a country that is just over 200 years old, the Clinton visit is barely a pebble on the road to the future. This won't be nine days that shook the world.