Hollywood spectres could spoil China's US party

Deng Xiaoping found himself sitting next to Shirley MacLaine when he dined in the White House in 1979

Deng Xiaoping found himself sitting next to Shirley MacLaine when he dined in the White House in 1979. The Hollywood actress, who had made a movie extolling the Cultural Revolution, gushed to the Chinese leader about meeting a nuclear physicist in China who had been assigned to work on a tomato farm. The scientist had assured her how much happier and fulfilled he was toiling in the fields, she said.

"He lied," replied Deng, cutting her off. "That's what he had to say at the time."

Now, as Deng's successor, Jiang Zemin, prepares to take the same road to Washington later this month and also dine in the White House, it is the Chinese who are accusing Hollywood of distorting the truth about China.

Beijing is angry about a batch of movies depicting it in a bad light. The first, already released, is Seven Years in Tibet, which tells the story of SS Stormtrooper Heinrich Harrer, who escaped to Tibet from a British camp in India during the second World War. Harrer, played by Brad Pitt, became adviser to the 14-year-old Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader who fled his homeland in 1959 after the Chinese invasion.

The official Chinese media gave full vent to the fury of the leadership at the depiction of Chinese brutality in the film and the elevation to hero status of the Dalai Lama, whom they regard as a "splittist" seeking to break up the country.

"The Tibet craze set off by Hollywood is being used by a Nazi to advertise himself," fumed the People's Daily.

Much worse from China's viewpoint is to come in the form of Kundun, a biography of the Dalai Lama made by Martin Scorsese. Due for release in the United States on Christmas Day, the film depicts China crushing Tibet's religious and political freedoms.

The Chinese unsuccessfully tried to persuade Disney to drop the project last year. They have been further incensed by the participation of the Dalai Lama's niece, who plays his mother, and a meeting between script-writer Melissa Mathison, best known for writing ET, and the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, India.

Enter Henry Kissinger, who in 1972 set up a meeting between President Nixon and Mao Zedong which led to the United States recognising communist China. The former US secretary of state has now been hired to advise Michael Eisner, Walt Disney's chairman, on how to handle the diplomatic problems surrounding Kundun. Mr Kissinger, popular with the Chinese leaders because of his historic role, has the task of persuading Beijing not to punish Disney by blocking the company's penetration of the huge, untapped Chinese market.

There is a lucrative outlet among China's 1.2 billion people for Mickey Mouse merchandise and films like The Lion King, Aladdin and Pocahontas, and the company is planning a theme park on the scale of EuroDisney in France.

The Chinese fear that the movies, and another one due out soon called Red Corner, featuring Richard Gere as the victim of a brutal court system in China, play into the hands of those in the United States who see China as the enemy.

The more they gain attention, the more they undermine President Jiang's strategic goal, which is to enhance his leadership credentials at home through the first full-blown Sino-US summit since the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989.

The risk for China is that demonstrations will dominate coverage of what is intended as an ambitious promotional tour, starting in Hawaii on October 26th, and including a 21-gun salute and black-tie state dinner at the White House. Exiled Tibetans, human rights groups, labour unions, environmentalists, anti-nuclear protesters and religious leaders have formed a loose coalition to stage coast-to-coast demonstrations highlighting their grievances against China.

The Chinese side has been making a concerted effort to put its case in advance of the visit. This is that things are gradually improving, that laws are slowly becoming more liberal, that both nations stand to gain from a trade-based partnership, and that China is ready to take its place at the top tables in the world, including membership of the World Trade Organisation.

This week, for example, the State Council issued a defence of its policy of allowing only officially sanctioned religious groups to operate in China, pointing out that there are now 3,000 temples of Tibetan Buddhism compared to the handful left after an orgy of destruction by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

The pre-summit propaganda campaign has given rise to speculation, based more on hope than evidence, that China might free a leading dissident as a gesture to the United States and as a way of defusing protests both on the streets and in the Oval Office.

The most obvious candidate is 47-year-old Wei Jingsheng, who has spent more than a third of his life in jail for advocating democracy and who was last sentenced in 1995 to 14 years in prison for plotting to overthrow the government.

His sister, Wei Shan Shan, said: "I would not say there is a chance, but I am hoping." Relatives are concerned about the physical and mental health of Wei, whose book, The Courage to Stand Alone, was published in the west earlier this year.

In other respects relations between Washington and Beijing are now steadily coming out of the post-Tiananmen period. President Clinton, who talks about partnership with China rather than confrontation, has decoupled trade and human rights and restored Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to China.

The United States is now China's second-largest trading partner and China is America's fourth-largest trading partner. There are 203,000 US-invested projects in China involving an aggregate of $15 billion. Some 9,890 Americans live and work in China, compared to a few hundred in the wake of Tiananmen, and another 40,800 reside in Hong Kong.

Contracts worth "billions of US dollars" will be signed during the summit visit, a Chinese trade official said yesterday. Beijing is expected to announce an order for as many as 30 Boeing aircraft.

However, US Commerce Secretary William Daley complained in Hong Kong on Wednesday that China's rapidly growing trade surplus with the United States was unacceptable and must change. It is expected to rise from $40 billion to $44 billion this year.

China announced it would send a buying mission to the United States to help narrow the imbalance, and lower tariffs to encourage more US imports. Mr Jiang may find that surging Chinese exports have provoked a political backlash in Washington, which is still blocking Beijing's efforts to join WTO.

For the Chinese, ceremony as much as substance will confer status at home, but Beijing is under pressure to compensate Mr Clinton for his policy of engagement in the face of popular anti-Chinese sentiments. Mr Jiang may concede that China is prepared to stop selling nuclear and weapons technology to such countries as Iran.

China and the US are also expected to sign a Military Maritime Agreement to prevent a flare-up in Asian waters like the stand-off in October 1994 between the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and a Chinese submarine off the Chinese coast.

As a mark of the cordial relationship between the two powers, US naval vessels have been allowed to continue annual visits to Hong Kong since the territory was handed over to the Chinese on July 1st.

In fact, the continuing success of Hong Kong as a world-class business and financial centre since the handover will be Jiang Zemin's trump card when he meets Mr Clinton. But, unfortunately for him, Hollywood is unlikely to make a movie about that.