Archive for Thursday, August 15, 2002

Chinese leader ponders exit

August 15, 2002


The scene: A solitary figure slumps behind an imposing desk near the open window. Sea breezes blow in from China's Bohai Gulf and flutter the curtains in this work area of Building 8, Beidaihe's most hidden and luxurious villa. Piles of draft documents for the 16th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party tumble over the desk and onto the floor. Jiang Zemin rises wearily, glances out the window and walks downstage to begin his soliloquy:

Swimming half the day, arguing with the party's American experts the rest. I don't know which I hate more. And both are Mao's fault. He started bringing the whole party leadership here for August and plunging into the waves for hours to show them, and the nation, how active he still was. So I'm stuck with this collegial "working vacation." And with his troublesome Americans.

(A smirk plays on the face of the 76-year-old Chinese president.)

My experts say that the Bush White House can't wait for me to go. That the Bush people can't wait to roll over this unknown and untested Fourth Generationer that the congress will soon bless to succeed me. They think they can encircle us and we will do nothing, because we are going through a leadership change. So what if I just don't go, Mr. George W.? What if I don't let Hu Jintao take over on schedule? What does that do to your so-called "China policy"?

So I let stories that I am reconsidering my retirement go on circulating: to get under Bush's skin. To repay him for that Dalai Lama business in Shanghai. Besides, who will say it is such a terrible idea? That I stay on in office in threatening times to guide these youngsters who have no connection with the 1949 Revolution and the First Generation of leaders it produced. Dick Cheney would understand.

Hu plays his cards well for a kid of 59. He did that question-and-answer session in Washington last winter, to show the Council on Foreign Relationers how "with it" and spontaneous he is. But the agents I sent with him tell me that Hu read every answer from the script we agreed on here, whatever the question was.

Of course we speak from detailed scripts when we meet with foreigners. And each other. Bush seems surprised, and impatient, when I start the prepared parts. Maybe I shouldn't take it personally. Our agents have picked up what Colin Powell said when he was told that other secretaries of state had insisted on at least an hour alone every week with their presidents to talk foreign policy: "But what would I do with the other 55 minutes?" Is there an attention span problem here?

Doesn't Bush understand that it is only in the third hour of the fourth meeting that we can begin to be frank with a stranger? He must listen as closely to what we don't say in these scripts each of which we have debated for hours as to what we do say. Listening is as important an art as talking. No, it is more important.

And Shanghai last October? Bush rushed to tell me that he did not want to argue about Tibet. But he wanted me to know that this Dalai Lama seemed totally reasonable, worth my talking to. We had not scripted an answer for that one! So I went totally inscrutable on Bush. Maintained radio silence. He finally changed the subject.

Look, we never expected wine and roses from this guy. He's not Clinton. He's not even Dad. But he has used this war on terrorism to put American bases on our western border, to pry Russia away from us, to give the Japanese navy a pretext for sailing farther south and west than ever before, to talk about joint projects with India and to introduce U.S. forces back to the Philippines and Indonesia.

That's encirclement. That's not something we can ignore. And all this while we have been quiet about Taiwan and about Pakistan's problems with India, so we could get on with a quiet leadership change at home.

Well, Mr. George W., don't count your encircled chickens yet. I will not become a lame Beijing duck just to suit you. My legacy, like Mao's and Deng's, will have an American piece too. I had Clinton eating from our hand. You bite it. You will pay. If Hu cannot do it, I can.

He frowns. He turns. Exit Jiang Zemin. Or maybe not.

Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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