Planes' collision sets Chinese on edge

Citizens denounce U.S. arrogance, their own country's weakness

April 07, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - The collision last Sunday between U.S. and Chinese military planes has touched a nationalistic nerve here, fueling resentment toward what many see as the United States' arrogant use of power and frustration with China's own relative weakness.

As U.S. officials met yesterday for a second time with 24 crew members held in China's southern island of Hainan, people on the streets of Beijing continued to seethe with anger toward the United States, demanding an unconditional apology and compensation.

"I believe the U.S. government should first apologize because they've violated our sovereignty," said Liu Hanqun, a 33-year-old who works in international trade in the Chinese capital. "They should compensate Wang Wei's family members."

Liu was referring to the pilot of the Chinese fighter jet, which crashed last weekend after the collision over international waters south of Hainan. The Chinese have held the crippled U.S. plane and its crew of 21 men and three women since it made an emergency landing in Haikou, the island's capital. China has demanded that the United States make a full apology for the accident and the presumed loss of the pilot.

While most Chinese expressed support for their government's handling of the matter so far, there were also signs that some harbored anger toward China's leadership.

Yesterday, some complained that Beijing had not been tough enough on the United States and spoke wistfully of the days when the nation was run by strongmen such as Mao Tse-tung.

Shen Yunbiao offered his thoughts as he stood in the shade of trees across from the U.S. Consulate, applying for a visa to visit his son in the United States.

"The Chinese government has been too kind," said Shen, 54. "If it were Mao's time, we would have definitely shot down the American plane.

"Although Mao Tse-tung was a tyrant, we miss him," Shen continued, surrounded by a crowd furious with the U.S. government but standing in line waiting for visas to visit America. "He would not have let us Chinese be bullied."

Others questioned China's military might after the midair collision in which a Chinese-flown supersonic fighter jet crashed but an unarmed, propeller-driven U.S. surveillance plane managed to land safely.

"I can't understand, a fighter is totally destroyed by a reconnaissance plane," wrote a person using the name, "aaa," on Sohu.com, one of China's major Internet portals. "How can America be so much more sophisticated than China? I'm so worried about China's military."

Public frustration with weak Chinese leadership has led to major demonstrations in the past. It contributed to the eventual collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the defeat of the Nationalists by Mao during the Chinese Civil War.

In many respects, the public's reaction this week in Beijing is a more moderate version of the one two years ago when NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, during the war in Kosovo. Beijing insisted the attack was deliberate, and tens of thousands of Chinese students and citizens surrounded the U.S. Embassy here for days, pelting it with rocks, chunks of concrete and even Molotov cocktails.

The bombing, which the United States called an accident, tapped into historical insecurities and resentments. China's authoritarian regime played them skillfully.

The country's state-run media fanned public outrage, reminding Chinese of their nation's semi-colonial past. The city government and universities arranged transportation for students and workers so they could attack the U.S. Embassy.

Some Chinese saw the bombing as the latest in a long line of humiliations at the hands of foreign powers, reaching back as far as China's defeat by the British during the First Opium War of 1842.

The Chinese government, though, has taken a more cautious approach to the most recent crisis. To avoid a repeat of the large-scale anti-U.S. demonstrations in 1999, police detained several people who tried to protest in front of the American Embassy.

While some Chinese newspapers have accused the United States of arrogance and maintaining a Cold War mentality, Thursday's edition of the state-run, English-language China Daily struck a more pragmatic note.

"Apparently neither Beijing nor Washington wants to see a full-blown crisis," the newspaper wrote in an editorial, "Crisis benefits no one."

"The mishandling of the current incident may easily throw the fragile relations ... back into turmoil," it said.

With vastly different political systems and cultures, China and the United States have had a roller-coaster relationship over much of the past two decades.

In recent months, ties have been more strained than usual with the arrival of the Bush administration, which has spoken more critically of China's human rights record than the Clinton White House did.

Complicating matters is Beijing's anxiety over a decision President Bush will make this month on whether to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan.

Despite all the fury directed at the United States this week, some Chinese doubt that Beijing will allow the standoff over the spy plane to severely damage relations. The reality is that China needs a working relationship with the United States if it hopes to achieve its primary goal: continued economic development.

With the world's largest economy, the United States is an important trading partner and source of foreign investment and technology for China. Young Chinese generally prefer to work for U.S. companies over most others. And studying in the United States is the dream of most of China's best students.

America "is too arbitrary and arrogant," said Zhang Yan, a businessman in his 30s. "But anyway, I think Sino-U.S. relations are more important. Such kind of things should not influence the relations between the two countries."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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