In China's view, a matter of face

Standoff: An affair of little consequence to Americans touches a sensitive nerve in an uncertain China searching for the world's respect.

April 11, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - On the surface, the stalemate between the United States and China over last week's midair collision may make little sense to Americans. Why, many wonder, does Beijing insist on detaining 24 crew members of a U.S. spy plane forced to make an emergency landing after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet in international airspace?

More worrisome, how did the incident become a test of wills between the world's most powerful country and the most populous country?

Some of the answers lie in miscalculations by both governments, political pressures at home as well as cultural and historical differences in the way Chinese and Americans see themselves and the world, analysts say.

Ten days ago, a U.S. EP-3E Aries II Navy spy plane and a Chinese F-8 that was shadowing it collided some 60 miles south of China's Hainan island in the South China Sea. The Chinese plane crashed and the pilot is missing. The crippled American aircraft made an emergency landing at a military base in Hainan.

Each government has blamed the other for the incident. The Chinese have repeatedly demanded a formal apology as an implicit requirement for freeing the crew. The U.S. government has expressed regret for China's loss of the plane and pilot but refuses to apologize.

Most Americans see the collision as an accident in which a damaged plane landed at the nearest airport - albeit one run by the Chinese military. To many Chinese, though, the crash and the plane's unauthorized landing have larger implications. Chinese see them as part of a historic pattern of abuse and disrespect by foreign forces.

America is a young, modern nation relatively unburdened by the weight of history. China, by contrast, is an ancient society that often views even small events through the lens of the past.

Lasting humiliations

Once the most advanced country on Earth, the Middle Kingdom spent much of the latter half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th on the losing end of wars with technologically superior powers.

The British wrested Hong Kong from the Chinese after the first Opium War in 1842. In the early 20th century, the French, British and Americans carved Shanghai into fiefdoms. During World War II, the Japanese invaded and devastated China, even using Chinese as human guinea pigs in chemical weapons experiments.

"The Chinese people have been humiliated by the West for the last 150 years," said Peter Kien-hong Yu, a Taiwanese political scientist and visiting scholar at National University of Singapore. They "are quite sensitive to the issue of territorial integrity."

Recent clashes between the United States and China have only irritated those sensitivities. In the Persian Gulf in 1993, Washington infuriated Beijing by inspecting the Yinhe, a Chinese merchant ship, on suspicion of transporting chemical weapons ingredients. Nothing was found.

Three years later, President Clinton sent two aircraft carriers to the waters off Taiwan after China held missile tests designed to intimidate the island, which Beijing views as a rebel province. And in 1999, during the war in Kosovo, NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. The bombing, which the Chinese insist was deliberate and the United States says was an accident, sparked the worst anti-Western demonstrations in China since the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976.

The Chinese insistence on a formal apology for the latest incident in the South China Sea flows in part from the nation's Confucian culture, which emphasizes ritualized acts of respect for those in high positions.

"People get their identity and dignity from their social position and the way they are viewed and treated by those around them, including foreigners," said David M. Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and author of "Same Bed, Different Dreams: Managing U.S.-China Relations, 1989-2000."

"When the outside world is not treating you as you expect, in a way, it strips away your dignity."

American culture, by contrast, encourages individualism and sometimes celebrates those who don't care what others think. When China feels insulted by a foreign country, officials and ordinary people will say - with dead seriousness - that the offending nation has "hurt the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people."

"You would never find an American saying that," said Lampton.

Talking tough

While culture and history have contributed to the current stalemate, regional political ambitions and diplomatic mistakes have played roles as well. After the accident, President Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin took tough positions.

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