China transition muddies U.S. relations

Leadership change in '02 stiffens political resolve and bolsters nationalism

April 05, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The worrisome prospect of a change in leadership in China next year "keeps me awake at night," Chinese President Jiang Zemin reportedly has told colleagues.

He's not the only one. U.S. officials also are concerned about the succession.

Leadership transitions in China are rarely tidy or predictable even under favorable circumstances. Beijing's standoff with Washington over a detained U.S. reconnaissance plane adds new uncertainty and possible volatility to China's internal power contest.

Specifically, the standoff could give fresh impetus to conservative nationalists jockeying for power in Beijing, Bush administration officials fear. And the lure of leadership vacancies might compel moderates to take a relatively harder line against the United States in the current impasse as they try to burnish their nationalist credentials.

"The upcoming period is very important for China, in terms of its economy and in terms of its orientation to the outside world," said Gerrit W. Gong, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "What we're concerned about is that we not have any [U.S.-China] issue become a domestic political issue in the Chinese domestic succession."

Jiang's balancing act

As China's top leader for the past decade, Jiang has performed a delicate balancing act by backing market reforms and improved relations with the West even as he satisfied conservatives' fear of disorder by stifling free speech and repressing the Falun Gong spiritual group.

The imbroglio over the U.S. reconnaissance plane could tip the political momentum toward those in China who see the United States as more of an adversary than a partner.

"From Jiang's personal point of view, this accident and the ensuing events have to be regarded by him as close to a disaster," said Nicholas Lardy, a Brookings Institution expert who specializes in China's economy.

"He has staked a lot on improving Chinese-American relations, and now there's no easy way out for him," Lardy said. "It puts at risk, quite frankly, everything he's worked toward."

China watchers point to a growing strain of nationalism in that country, nurtured not only in anti-reformist Communist cadres but among middle-class intellectuals who resent what they see as centuries of Western exploitation of their nation.

In the spy plane standoff, China's looming leadership change "impacts in two ways," said David M. Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington. "First, how can Jiang make himself look indispensable" in order to lay the ground for his desired successor?

"And then you've got the fact that none of them want to look weak on the United States as they try to convince their peers that they've got the mettle, what we would call `presidential timber.'"

Nationalist sentiment has been aggravated in recent years by a series of Beijing-Washington disputes that have fed Chinese perceptions that the United States seeks to deny Beijing its place in the world.

Five years ago, Washington deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area around Taiwan in the wake of Chinese missile tests off Taiwan's coast. In 1999, U.S. warplanes accidentally bombed China's embassy in Belgrade during NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia; the move was widely viewed in China as intentional.

President Bush's plans for a national missile defense are perceived by China as a grave threat to Beijing's nuclear missile force. Beijing views Washington's frequent denunciations of its human rights record as impertinent meddling in its internal affairs. And the proposed U.S. sale of advanced Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Aegis radar systems to Taipei has infuriated Beijing, which views Taiwan as a renegade province.

Anti-American sentiment

Jiang has contained anti-American nationalism, and sometimes fueled it, but he hasn't controlled it, analysts said.

Chinese Internet chat rooms are rife with comments about the "imperialist" United States. Many in the Chinese military have chafed at the softer tone taken by Jiang toward Washington, and they could see the current situation as an opportunity to make their views heard, analysts said.

In the wake of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the Chinese government provided buses for protesters who marched in front of the U.S. mission in Beijing. But at the same time, the government was restrained in its public denunciations of Washington, a course that generated domestic criticism.

Amid the latest tensions, Beijing appears to be taking the opposite course: orchestrating vocal protests by top government officials but trying to keep a lid on popular outbursts. State-controlled Chinese news media have mainly played down the story, analysts said.

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