On the eve of his visit to the United States, China's president, Jiang Zemin, sat down for a rare interview with Mike Wallace.
In a wide-ranging and surprisingly frank interview, Jiang talked about many topics, including relations between the United States and China, Tiananmen Square and American morals.
The two met recently inside the presidential compound in the seaside resort of Beidaihe, in what Chinese officials say is the first visit there by a Western television news crew.
Jiang, the leader of one of every five people on the planet, has not been interviewed for U.S. television in more than a decade. Wallace's interview will air two days before Jiang is scheduled to visit the United States.
Recently, one of China's government newspapers, The China Daily, called the United States, "a threat to world peace." Asked if he agrees with that assessment, Jiang treaded lightly.
"Candidly speaking, maybe it is because of the economic power and leading edge in science and technology that the United States enjoys, that more often than not [the United States] tends to overestimate itself and its position in the world," he said. "But today I want to convey a nice message to the American people, so I don't want to use too many tough words in our talk."
Asked about the presidential election, and future U.S.-Chinese relations, Jiang said that he has a lot of friends among both parties.
"So you gave money to both their campaigns?" Wallace asked.
"Are you just joking?" Jiang responded. "We have never done such things. I have read the campaign platforms of both parties, and I believe whoever becomes president will try to improve the friendly relations between China and the United States for this is in the strategic interest of the whole world. Someone asked me not to pay attention to unfriendly remarks candidates might make about China during the campaign because once elected they will be friendly. I only hope that's true."
Prior to the interview, Jiang had agreed to give short answers so the two men could cover more ground. When Wallace reminded him of that, a smiling Jiang was ready with a reply, pointing out that his answers had also been long. "I think my answer is roughly the same length as your question."
Beidaihe, the site of the interview, has been called China's Camp David. Beidaihe is where the country's leaders meet in private every August to develop their plans for the coming year. The president agreed to speak candidly with 60 Minutes, emphasizing that he wants better relations with America.
"I hope to convey through your program my best wishes to the American people," he said.
Jiang said that relations between the two countries are, on the whole, good. But he compared Chinese-U.S. relations to "nature," because of its variability: "Our relations have experienced wind, rain, and sometimes clouds r even dark clouds. However, sometimes it clears up. We all sincerely hope to build a constructive partnership between China and the United States."
"That's spoken like a real politician," Wallace responded. "There's no candor in it."
"I don't think politician is a very nice word," Jiang said.
"No, it's not a nice word," Wallace said. "It is a diplomatic word in this case."
Although Jiang is gregarious and likes attention, he has not given an extended interview to an American television reporter for 10 years. He says this is partly because Americans refuse to believe that the vast majority of Chinese are actually satisfied with one-party rule. Jiang, in fact, disagreed strongly when Wallace called China a dictatorship.
"Your way of describing what things are like in China is as absurd as what the Arabian Nights may sound like," Jiang said. "The National Peoples Congress selects the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Central Committee has a Politburo. And the Politburo has a standing committee of which I'm a member. And no decision is made unless all members agree."
Wallace asked Jiang if he admired the courage of the student who stood down the tank during the student uprising in Tiananmen Square.
"He was never arrested," Jiang said. "I don't know where he is now. Looking at the picture I know he definitely had his own ideas."
"You have not answered the question, Mr. President," Wallace said. "Did a part of Jiang Zemin admire his courage?"
"I know what you are driving at, but what I want to emphasize is that we fully respect every citizen's right to freely express his wishes and desires," Jiang said. "But I do not favor any flagrant opposition to government actions during an emergency. The tank stopped and did not run the young man down."
"I'm not talking about the tank," Wallace said. "I'm talking about that man's heart, that man's courage, that man, that lonely man, standing against that."
Wallace then mentioned that Jiang himself had been a student protestor in Shanghai, during World War II. Was there any parallel?
"In the 1989 disturbance we truly understood the passion of students who were calling for greater democracy and freedom," Jiang said. "In fact, we have always been working to improve our system of democracy. But we could not possibly allow people with ulterior motives to use the students to overthrow the government under the pretext of democracy and freedom."
A month after Tiananmen, Jiang wrote a speech in which he said, "Corruption is growing. If all our party and our government organs use that power to seek material benefits, isn't this just like fleecing the people in broad daylight?"
Wallace pointed out that the Tiananmen demonstrators had also been protesting against corruption. Had they had an effect on the Party, Wallace asked
"I hate corruption," Jiang said. "You are right that during the 1989 disturbance students were changing slogans against corruption, so on this specific point the Party shares the same position as the students."
As an aside, and to underline his credentials as a student demonstrator in times past, the president himself sang a protest song he had used back in 1943 against Japanese troops who were occupying parts of China: "Arise Fellow Students to Defend the Motherland."
The president's aides suggested it would be unfair to show pictures of the violence at Tiananmen Square because, they say, Jiang Zemin had nothing to do with it. But they were glad to give 60 Minutes pictures of their embassy in Belgrade, which had been demolished by American bombers, during NATO's air war last year.
When asked if he believed that the United States purposely bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Jiang answered obliquely.
"The United States has state-of-the-art technology," he said. "So all the explanations that they have given us for what they call a mistaken bombing are absolutely unconvincing."
"The identification marks of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade were too clear for people to miss," he continued. "So why has there been such an incident? It is still a question. But we have decided to look forward, to improve China-U.S. relations."
Afterward, the U.S. government had tried to convince China that the bombing had been a horrible mistake.
"President Clinton apologized to me for the bombing, many times, on the telephone," Jiang said. "I told him, since you represent Americans and I Chinese, it would be impossible for us to reach total agreement on this issue."
To find out what Jiang thinks about American morals, the Gettysburg Address and the Falun Gong, go to the second part of the story.