Angry Chinese resurrect `running dogs' of yore

Mistaken bombing quickly turns Chinese love of U.S. into unbridled hatred

May 15, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- When Americans visit this city for the first time, they are often surprised and encouraged by its increasingly modern veneer, including the glass-and-steel towers, the dozens of McDonald's restaurants, the cell phones and the occasional Mercedes. They often leave with the impression that Chinese are becoming more like Westerners -- which is true to a point.

But the trappings of middle-class life are just those -- trappings. And nothing better demonstrates some of the stark differences that remain between the United States and China than their people's collective reactions to the NATO bombing last week of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital.

Deliberate attack

Americans were horrified but assumed the attack was accidental. The Chinese government and its state-run media claimed the strike was deliberate. Most Chinese agreed. What followed were the largest anti-Western protests here since the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976.

In a country where public demonstrations are taboo, this was a staggering, state-sanctioned display. Tens of thousands of protesters -- most of them students, at first -- took to the streets in cities around the nation, chanting anti-American slogans, attacking U.S. diplomatic sites and harassing Westerners.

The scenes were often incongruous.

Raised on Hollywood movies and wearing Nike T-shirts, young students -- many of whom dream of attending U.S. graduate schools -- hurled chunks of concrete and paint bombs at the U.S. Embassy.

The rhetoric evoked the Cultural Revolution. Beijingers denounced British Prime Minister Tony Blair as "the running dog of American imperialists." Some taxi drivers refused to pick up Westerners on the street, calling them "foreign devils."

Beneath this explosion of anger lie enduring truths about Chinese society that increasing Westernization sometimes obscures.

After 20 years of economic reforms and opening to the outside world, China remains ambivalent about the West and the United States, with which it has a love-hate relationship.

Many Chinese admire U.S. technology and education as well as pop culture and consumer products. At the same time, the U.S. military muscle and its willingness to use it frightens and worries China.

Chinese insecurity

Despite their status as a rising power and growing access to the Internet, Chinese are still insecure about their semicolonial past and easily influenced by the state-run media.

Under the circumstances, most seemed willing to believe the worst when the bombs struck the Chinese Embassy eight days ago.

At a time of great frustration with unemployment, corruption and the forthcoming 10th anniversary of the massacre of democracy demonstrators near Tiananmen Square, the airstrike provided the regime with an opportunity to unite the country.

"The government has been looking for something to hold the nation together," said Li Ming, 55, a writer and critic in Beijing. "In the past it was Marxism, Mao's thought and Deng Xiaoping's thought, but that's not working anymore. I think NATO and America have done China a favor to help bring the nation together through nationalism."

While there is little doubt the strike on the Chinese Embassy, which killed three people, would have provoked sizable demonstrations, the government-controlled media fanned the flames.

The Chinese press insisted the attack was deliberate and, at first, barely mentioned that President Clinton had apologized or that NATO had said the strike was a mistake.

Chinese were, understandably, flabbergasted.

"Why hasn't Clinton apologized?" protesters asked in disbelief at least a day after the president had already done so.

It's own potential Kosovos

China has strongly opposed the NATO war against Yugoslavia from the beginning. This country has its own potential Kosovos in places like Tibet and Taiwan.

The Chinese media ensured even deeper opposition to the Yugoslav war by largely overlooking Serbian atrocities against the Kosovar Albanians. Most Chinese think the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is bullying Yugoslavia and that the Kosovar Albanians flee because of NATO bombs.

"Stop NATO Fascist Pigs," reads a sign scrawled in red ink on a dormitory door at Beijing University, Chinese most famous.

Students, who have access to the Internet, accepted the government account of the embassy bombing, despite Western news stories to the contrary. Most did not trust the foreign reports.

The government has done a good job over the years of discrediting the foreign media. Last week, for instance, Beijing Youth Daily ran a story saying that journalists from all over the world were sending back photographic images of the demonstrations here -- all except journalists from the United States.

Chinese might have learned differently had they watched CNN's coverage, which included one protester hitting correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon on the head. The regime, however, only permits CNN in hotels and the homes and offices of foreigners.

Students less critical

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