"Secret fund" claims dampen Gore visit


THE US Vice President, Mr Al Gore, arrived in Beijing last night on a mission impossible to improve relations with China without fuelling suspicions that Washington's policies have been tainted by Chinese contributions to President Clinton's 1996 campaign.

Mr Gore, the most senior US visitor to Beijing since the 1989 suppression of pro democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, is preparing the way for a visit by Mr Clinton to China early next year.

While the agenda for his talks with Chinese leaders will be dominated by the issues which bedevil US China relations - Taiwan, human rights and trade - Mr Gore and his Chinese hosts will agree on one matter the desirability of quashing claims that Asian businessmen channelled Chinese money to the Democratic Party to persuade the Clinton administration to soften its attitude towards Beijing.

Mr Gore told reporters that he intended to raise the issue "in an appropriate way and in the proper context". He could do no less given the stink raised by the US media about the charges, which are being investigated by the FBI.

Beijing officials are furious abut the publicity given to the allegations. These have created an atmosphere where expectations have been dampened by US officials who are fearful that friendly gestures towards China could be interpreted as a quid pro quo for illegal campaign contributions.

The official Chinese media sees a plot to force Washington to take a more hard line China policy. The China Daily alleged that anti China hysteria was being fed by pro Taiwan figures. It singled out the former US ambassador to China, Mr James Lilley, who has accused Beijing of pouring huge sums into the 1996 election.

Mr Lilley "has capitalised on the anti China rubbish" and his "disgusting performance cannot but arouse righteous indignation among people who care for and support the development of Sino US relations", the newspaper said.

The People's Daily denied the claims, saying it was a "complete fabrication to allege that the improvement in Sino US relations is due to any improper payments by the Chinese government".

Mr Gore's mission is also fraught with scepticism within the US about the administration's argument that the best way to encourage reform and democratisation is to engage China as a trading partner and strengthen its ties with the rest of the world.

A new book called The Coming Conflict With China, published in the US by two former Beijing correspondents, is currently promoting China as public enemy number one. It is a response to a best selling book in China last year called China Can Say No which demonised the US.

The book argues that the US desire to retain its strategic dominance in the Asia Pacific region will, inevitably, bring it into conflict with an increasingly arrogant and powerful communist China.

Many diplomats in Beijing believe the campaign contributions issue is a red herring and that the key question facing the US is whether to follow a policy of containment or engagement with China, or a mixture of both.

Mr Gore emphasised engagement in his remarks to reporters. "It is more than reasonable to place a bet that, as the free market expands dramatically, so too will democracy. I think it's a more propitious time now than in the past because both our countries are clearly signalling to one another that we want to find a way to move forward in the relationship."

The Vice President, accompanied by his wife, Tipper, will visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City today before getting down to business with the Prime Minister, Mr Li Peng, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Zhu Rongji. Tomorrow, he will visit the Great Wall and then have talks with President Jiang Zemin.

The visit has renewed speculation that the US and China may soon make a long anticipated breakthrough on human rights. The US is threatening to support a UN resolution condemning China unless there is progress from Beijing.

Under the deal, China would agree to sign two international covenants on human rights and release at least eight dissidents. It would also resume talks with the International Committee of the Red Cross for a programme of prison visits to determine the status of prisoners of conscience, according to the New York Times.

In return, Beijing could expect an end to the annual confrontation over its human rights record at the UN's Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

Ms Wei Shanshan, sister of imprisoned dissident Wei Jingsheng, has written to Mr Gore asking him to appeal for his release. Wei served almost 15 years in prison for criticising the former Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, before his release in 1955. He was rearrested almost immediately and given 14 more years for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.