In Beijing, reaction runs from bitterness to calm acceptance

China's deal with U.S. fails to get full apology many Chinese wanted

April 12, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - As news spread here yesterday that the Chinese government had struck a deal that would free 24 U.S. aircrew members but not yield the full apology Beijing had demanded, the mood across the capital ranged from bitter anger to pragmatic acceptance.

Some criticized the Chinese government for bowing to Washington, which many here felt had approached last week's collision between Chinese and U.S. military planes like an arrogant bully.

"Of course I'm not satisfied," said a man who gave only his surname of Zhao. "The government is too soft and weak.

"We should have shot down the plane with a missile the moment it invaded our airspace," Zhao added. "If the Chinese government was tough enough, it should insist that the United States, first, apologize; second, compensate for the lost pilot and the crashed plane; and [third], pledge that they'll never spy off the Chinese coast."

U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher delivered a letter yesterday to the Chinese government, expressing regret for the loss of a Chinese pilot still missing after a collision with a U.S. spy plane April 1 over the South China Sea. The crippled American plane landed on Hainan island, where the Chinese government held the crew for 11 days while insisting that Washington apologize and take full responsibility for the collision.

While some Chinese expressed frustration with their government's failure to extract a clear apology, others thought the Communist Party had shown some mettle in standing up to the United States and proved their country would not be pushed around.

"It is meaningless [for the Chinese government] to take a position that is too tough," said a 26-year-old former Internet company worker who gave only his surname of Li.

"China knew that the U.S. would never do exactly what it asked. The U.S. would lose face if it did," Li added. China "has used this incident to reaffirm its sovereignty and show its strength. It has already achieved its political objective."

Gauging public sentiment in China is a risky business. Because the press is state-run, the government often withholds critical pieces of information on sensitive matters to sway popular opinion. On political or international issues, some people are reluctant to give their names or even talk for fear of retribution from the authoritarian government.

In recent years, the Internet has opened up an unprecedented avenue for free speech, with all the pitfalls that come with anonymity and self-selection.

Rhetoric on the Internet last night was blisteringly critical of the Communist Party. One user compared the current regime to the Qing Dynasty, which collapsed in 1911 because of political weakness, corruption and the appeasement of foreign powers.

"The sad government! The incompetent government is just like the Qing Dynasty government," said "Yuan," on the Chinese Internet portal, Sohu.com. "You've just sold out the Chinese in this way again."

"We want to change leaders," wrote "whysorryagain." "A leader like this makes us look hopelessly stupid."

Such political talk is considered highly sensitive by China's nominally Communist regime, which is struggling against its own irrelevance in the face of the nation's transformation under market economics.

Despite the relatively free rein that Sohu.com gave its users, there were signs that rival portal Sina.com and other Internet sites were deleting criticisms that might upset government officials.

One Internet user deplored the censorship and distortion of public comment.

"Comments that support the government and condemn the enemy are posted," he wrote in an Internet article called `The Net Disappoints Us Over the Collision Incident! Should we be Fighters or Manipulated Dogs?'

"Comments that raise doubt over the incident, comments that show dissatisfaction at the government's policy or comments that propose some friendly opinions to the government are not allowed," the writer said. "What kind of an Internet world this is!"

While much online commentary appeared to deplore yesterday's agreement, Shi, a 23-year-old businessman interviewed on the street, said he considered the U.S. letter an apology. Shi said he thought many Chinese had approached the collision from a cool, pragmatic perspective.

"The ordinary Chinese people are much more calm than when the embassy bombing happened," he said, referring to the NATO bombing in 1999 of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, which sparked huge anti-Western demonstrations here.

"There are strong nationalistic sentiments in the country," he continued. "I have encountered people who refuse to buy American products and who think we shouldn't release the crew. But I don't think this sentiment is mainstream. At the present, economic relations are still the priority."

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