If it was a ground-breaking spectacle for the people of China to watch their leader cordially debating policy in public with the president of the United States, how much more extraordinary was the scene in Beijing University, when students grilled the US president on some of the thorniest topics dividing the two countries. President Bill Clinton received no quarter from his interrogators, and the mood of the audience was clear from the applause filling the hall each time another point emphasising China's different perspective on world events and its right to hold an alternative view was made. This was the embodiment of the China that can say 'no': the emerging superpower with a younger generation confident enough to point out to the leader of the world's most powerful nation that, for all its flag-waving, America often falls short of its own standards. It was a China which harbours suspicions that behind its stated commitment to peaceful co-operation, the US still seeks the containment of their nation. But Mr Clinton is a consummate communicator, with a knack of putting his point across by a combination of readily admitting the deficiencies of the American way, while subtly explaining the virtues of a system which fosters freedom of speech. That skill was most apparent when one questioner referred to the demonstrators who confronted President Jiang Zemin on his American trip, and asked Mr Clinton how he would feel if he got the same treatment in China. Here was clear evidence that despite claims to be well informed about the US, the students failed to grasp the fundamentals of democracy and had no concept of a national leader confronted by dissent on his home ground every week of the year - as is commonplace in the West. The other conclusion which might be drawn from that exchange is that the spirit of the democracy movement was well and truly crushed by the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and today's undergraduates are more at ease in a system of tight political control. Without knowing how representative of the student body yesterday's audience was, it is impossible to speculate on how well it reflected the general mood among the brightest of China's coming generation. But what can be said is that they were given an historic and unrivalled opportunity to listen and make their own judgments about the merits and shortcomings of two disparate systems. More importantly, via television, the rest of the country was able to do the same. Mr Clinton said that he had learned from the session, and the experience was almost certainly mutual. If the point of the exercise was to increase mutual understanding, it was a success, regardless of whether there are any concrete dividends from the Clinton visit in the months to follow.