The visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin was just what Washington, a city gripped by political scandals, needed - a villain to make its political class feel morally superior. It has been a while.
President Clinton and congressional leaders sternly lectured the leader of the world's last great Communist power about human rights, nuclear proliferation and fair trade - all areas where China has an appalling record. Jiang appeared unfazed by the attacks from American politicians. He gave no ground, made no concessions on human rights. He compared the Chinese conquest of Tibet to Abraham Lincoln's emancipation of slaves and dismissed the Tiananmen Square massacre as a law-and-order issue.Jiang can play the spin game with the best of Washington's practitioners. He seems to have figured out that Washington thrives more on perception than substance, that truth is a cheap commodity in the capital of the free world, and that lying is no big deal. Ignore the evidence, deny the obvious and you can get away with just about anything. And, of course, never pass up a good photo opportunity. Maybe that's why he chose such icons of democracy as the Liberty Bell as a backdrop for his visit.
The Chinese president came to the United States seeking to affirm his government's legitimacy abroad.
He got a 21-gun salute on the White House lawn and a state dinner in his honor. The news accounts and television images of his visit were carefully edited for Chinese audiences back home. The flak he encountered on human rights, including the noisy protests at just about every stop, was left on the cutting-room floor, and the censored version of his U.S. tour made it appear Jiang was a smashing success.
It's hard to know what the average American makes of China these days. In a new Gallup poll taken for CNN and USA Today, 36 percent of Americans surveyed said they regarded China as unfriendly or an outright enemy - up from 21 percent before Tiananmen Square. But it's more complicated than that.
American business, which has become a China lobby in Washington, is pushing for more and freer trade. Jiang's visit was good news for Boeing, Westinghouse and IBM. Their deals with China drowned out organized labor's complaints that China's use of prison labor is costing American jobs.
Clinton and Jiang agreed to establish a hot line between Washington and Beijing. That's probably a good idea, just in case China does something foolish, like invade Taiwan. But I think most Americans find China more offensive than threatening.
The People's Republic of China is not the frightening superpower the former Soviet Union was in the days of the Cold War. Mao's China was scary; Jiang's China is not - at least to those of us on the outside. It is seen not as our enemy as much as it is a foreign policy challenge.
Unlike the old Soviet Union, with nuclear missiles aimed at American cities, China does not figure into any modern Armageddon scenario. China is an emerging economic and military power, but it does not threaten - at least directly - anyone outside its sphere of influence in Asia.
China has plenty of ugly faults. The Beijing government persecutes Christians and jails political dissidents. Its approach to population control is forced abortion and sterilization. It harvests human organs for the highest bidder. And it can't be trusted to abide by the letter or the spirit of the agreements it signs.
Even so, Clinton is right when he argues that while we may not like China, we have little choice but to try to engage it in a relationship defined by common interests. In Clinton's first term, his China policy was defined by trade almost to the exclusion of everything else. The U.S.-China relationship cannot be placed in thrall to any single issue - be it trade or human rights.
Although Jiang left Washington with more than he gave, the summit was an important and useful event. It gave everyone an opportunity to speak his or her mind, and it should remind both Washington and Beijing that their complex, bilateral relationship cannot rest on trade alone.