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China takes show on the road

Campaign meant to introduce U.S. to Asian nation

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BEIJING — After years of grumbling that it has been unfairly maligned and misunderstood in the United States, the Chinese government is taking its show on the road with a $7 million public relations campaign — a touring cultural extravaganza intended to introduce Americans to China.

Starting on Thursday and continuing for three weeks, cities across the United States will play host to a series of performances, exhibitions and lectures organized by the Chinese. There will be displays about China's scenic spots in the Javits Center in New York, musical performances in St. Louis and Des Moines and question-and-answer sessions with a top Chinese official in Washington, to name a few of the events.

The campaign, organized by China's State Council Information Office and its Ministry of Culture — and partly underwritten by American corporations with large investments in China — seems clearly intended to polish China's image for the American public at a crucial time in relations between the two nations.

Within the next month, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on whether to give China permanent trading status, the final obstacle to China's full entry into the World Trade Organization. And Chinese officials seem keenly aware that China is likely to be a major foreign policy issue in the coming American presidential election.

"American voters should get to know us," said Zhao Qizheng, the government minister who directs the State Council Information Office. "It is the foundation of a relationship that people get to know each other.

"I hope that some day an American president will say something good about China. Will that take 10 years? Twenty? Fifty? It shouldn't be that long. So we are bringing a little of China to the U.S. for people to see."

The campaign is the first large-scale attempt by the Chinese government at public relations and marketing in the United States, skills that were largely irrelevant and ignored there when it was an isolated Communist state.

But image building has become increasingly important as China has sought acceptance in the world arena in the past five years. The pressure on China is especially great because Taiwan, the island whose future status is the main sticking point in China's relationship with the United States, has long operated a sophisticated, well-financed public relations machine in the United States even though Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province separated by civil war and has not ruled out military force to achieve eventual reunification.

It is likely that China's public relations campaign will help at least somewhat to humanize a country that is frequently demonized in the American psyche as a colorless land of fear and forced abortions.

Zhao is one of a new generation of urbane Chinese officials — his brother is a university administrator in the United States — and Western diplomats have been uniformly impressed by his relative openness.

Although China is still a one-party dictatorship that tightly limits political freedoms, day-to-day life here no longer has a repressive feel for most Chinese. Its cities are diverse, bustling places filled with Internet cafes, fashionably dressed women, youths with punk attire and neon hair, and opinionated cabdrivers eager to tick off the Communist Party's foibles.

"No matter what Americans' preconceived notions of China are, what they see when they get here is different," said Joseph Prueher, the American ambassador to Beijing, who announced the exhibition at a joint news conference with Zhao last Friday.

Still, he added, "the hurdles to our relationship are large because of distance, bias and also genuine differences in how we approach issues."

The campaign, called "2000, Experience China in the United States," will certainly accentuate the positive developments in China as well as the ties between the two countries. (It includes an exhibit about President Clinton's 1998 state visit.)

The "genuine differences" will be obvious only in relief — the important works that were not included in this display of Chinese culture because they do not meet with the government's approval.

While the Chinese literary and art scene has become much more active and adventurous in the last few years, artists must be wary about the political content of their work if it is to be openly sold or shown in China.

While much is now tolerated that brushes obliquely against politics, books and art exhibits are still banned if they cross the line — especially if they become popular and come to the government's attention.

All magazines and publishing houses are still owned by the state. And films are subject to rigorous censorship.

Some of the most exciting recent works by mainland Chinese authors, artists and directors have achieved international success but are off limits in China. The film director Jiang Wen's "Devils at the Doorstep" won the Golden Palm award at Cannes this summer, but it was never approved by China's censors and cannot be released.

At the news conference, Zhao played down the restrictions. "In China we have more than 8,000 magazines — it would be foolish to think we control this number," he said.

Zhao said that much of the financing for the event came from corporate America, which is eager to help smooth China's entry into the World Trade Organization and open China's vast markets to international business.

The list of honorary committee members for the exhibition reads like a Who's Who of corporate America, including Maurice R. Greenberg, chairman of the American International Group; Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom; John F. Smith, chairman of General Motors; Gerald M. Levin, chairman of Time Warner, and Philip M. Condit, chairman of Boeing.