Chinese students who battered U.S. Embassy are back for visas

Self-interest replaces fury over NATO strike

War In Yugoslavia

May 18, 1999|By FRANK LANGFITT | FRANK LANGFITT,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- For the first time since large protests ended here last week, Chinese people returned to the American Embassy yesterday -- not to hurl stones or epithets -- but to ask for visas to visit and study in the United States.

A 26-year-old Chinese student, who attends Michigan State University and who asked that his name not be used, stood outside waiting in vain to hear when the battered consular office would reopen.

"It shouldn't change the relationship between China and America," said the student, referring to the May 7 NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia that set off the largest anti-Western protests here in more than two decades. "I think this [educational] exchange benefits both countries."

Pragmatism and restraint are making a comeback about a week after some of the more extreme demonstrators called on their leaders to attack the United States.

Students who tried to burn embassy buildings with Molotov cocktails are back in class studying for the Graduate Record Examinations, so they can apply to schools in the United States -- or the "United Savages of America," as one banner referred to it last week.

Over lunch yesterday, a 23-year-old graduate student summed up the shifting mood of many young Beijingers after last week's protests.

"Patriotism is one thing," said the woman, who gave only her surname of Li. "But personal interest is another."

The embassy bombing, which left three Chinese journalists dead, sparked the largest anti-Western demonstrations here since the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

In the two days after the bombing, the state-run media failed to report NATO apologies or explanations and portrayed the airstrike as deliberate. And most Chinese believed it.

More than 10,000 attacked the U.S. diplomatic complex, hurling chunks of concrete, shattering dozens of windows and trapping Ambassador James R. Sasser inside for days. Protesters set fire to the home of the top U.S. consular official in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

And yet the students who one week ago portrayed President Clinton as the devil incarnate are today pressing ahead with their plans to attend U.S. graduate schools. This seeming paradox underscores two powerful forces in modern Chinese society: nationalism and practicality.

On one hand, Chinese were furious with the NATO bombing, which most initially saw as the latest in a long line of imperial affronts, stretching back at least to the Opium War in which China ceded Hong Kong to the British.

On the other hand, most students here view U.S. universities as an educational Holy Grail.

Chinese youth are ambivalent toward the United States. They love the consumer products and thrive on the movies, but tire of what they see as Washington's constant criticism of China's human rights record and its arrogance in international affairs.

At the very least, the bombing has made Chinese more distrustful of the nation they call "meiguo," or "the beautiful country."

Last week, many students told foreigners that they would still attend graduate school in the United States -- but to gain the knowledge to strengthen China.

Among themselves, some used an old Chinese saying: "Learn the techniques of foreigners to defeat foreigners."

"We don't like America very much," said a student who has applied to U.S. masters programs in

journalism, "but we always want to go there to pursue our studies."

While more and more students are pledging to return to China after their U.S. schooling, the vast majority of Chinese students on U.S. visas have yet to come back.

Even the most hardened nationalist would find winters in California far more appealing than those in Beijing, where the air pollution becomes so thick that visibility drops to several city blocks.

"I think the greatest motivation for going abroad is for a better life," said Li, the Beijing graduate student. "I don't think the country [China] is a consideration."

Even at the beginning of the protests, as thousands of students descended on the capital's diplomatic district, some were tempering their fury with caution lest they harm their chances of obtaining U.S. visas.

Some students declined to march on the U.S. Embassy for fear that surveillance cameras would catch them in the act. Others worried that visa officers would question them about their involvement in the protests.

"My classmate was even worried about [spy] satellites," a Beijing graduate student named Zhang recalled. "You never know what the United States is using now," he added, describing the logic behind his friend's concern.

As the Chinese press continues to report U.S. remorse over the air strike and people have had more time to ponder the incident dispassionately, some Chinese are beginning to concede the bombing might have been a mistake.

A front-page story in last weekends' People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, described Clinton's recent phone call to Chinese President Jiang Zemin and emphasized that Clinton had again apologized for the attack.

One Chinese journalist said she initially believed the state-controlled media's claim that the air strike was intentional, until she carefully considered it.

"Why would they want to bomb [the embassy of] China?" she thought. "I can't find a reason."

In the aftermath of last week's protests, U.S. Embassy officials have said the consular office in Beijing will remain closed indefinitely to allow for the cleanup

Some Chinese complained yesterday morning that U.S. officials did not come out to answer their questions.

Although officials have said the delay in reopening the visa office is not retaliatory, some Chinese think otherwise.

"Right now, I think they are ignoring us," said the student from Michigan State. "Perhaps they are angry."

Pub Date: 05/18/99

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