China launches battle for public opinion

Regime tries to sell deal on U.S. aircrew

April 13, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - The Communist Party revved up its vast propaganda machine yesterday to convince the Chinese people that it had won major concessions from the U.S. government in exchange for Wednesday's release of 24 American spy plane crew members.

In a mass-media assault designed to shore up support and deflect criticism, China's state-run newspapers ran identical stories lauding the agreement and portraying Beijing as the victor in the 11-day showdown with the world's lone superpower.

"Our government and people have carried out a strong struggle against American hegemonism and forced the American government to change the original hard line and savage attitude and express their sorrow to the Chinese people," said a front-page editorial in People's Daily, the Communist Party's official newspaper.

"The cadres and the masses strongly support the right decision of our government," read another editorial on the back page.

Not all the masses.

In interviews and on Internet bulletin boards, criticism of the government's handling of the conflict - which began immediately after the agreement was announced Wednesday night - continued around the capital yesterday. Some said Communist Party leaders should have held out for a full apology from the United States for last week's collision between the spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter over the South China Sea.

After the crash in international airspace April 1, the crippled U.S. plane landed on China's Hainan island, where the Chinese military detained the crew. Each side blamed the other for the collision.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin demanded that the United States apologize and take responsibility for the crash in which a Chinese pilot and fighter plane were lost. He implied that the crew's release was contingent on an apology.

On Wednesday, the United States presented a carefully crafted letter that said President Bush was "very sorry" for the loss of the pilot and the crippled plane's emergency landing on Chinese territory without permission.

The letter did not contain the word "apologize" in either language. Neither did it acknowledge responsibility for the crash.

"The American leaders, the Chinese leaders, I'm furious at both," said a driver for a Korean-owned wrapping paper firm in the nearby port city of Tianjin who declined to give his name. "The Chinese government was extremely kind - too kind. If the government is satisfied, what can the people say?" he asked. "Actually, the common people are really furious."

Surfers on the Internet - the freest forum in this authoritarian country - spoke more bluntly under the cloak of anonymity.

"People's Daily is talking garbage!" said one message posted to Sohu.com, a major Chinese Internet portal. "Down with Jiang Zemin!" many Internet users wrote.

Despite some of the fury on the streets, several observers and political analysts thought the Chinese government would be able to control public opinion in the near term. Some argued that ordinary Chinese would read the words "very sorry" and accept the state-run news media's contention that Beijing had forced the United States to compromise.

"The ordinary people ... have very little access to outside information," said Xu Youyu, a liberal intellectual and professor at the Philosophy Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Science. "I think ordinary people tend to believe that the government was able to resolve this properly."

Zhang, a 73-year-old retired state worker, thought so. "Our Chinese government has done the extremely right thing," said Zhang, as he read stories on the agreement yesterday afternoon in an edition of China Youth Daily, displayed in a glass box downtown. Though the U.S. letter did not contain the Chinese word for apologize - "daoqian" - it did contain the word "zhiqian," which can be translated as "express sorrow."

"I think that `express sorrow' equals an apology," said Zhang.

Others, though, said the letter fell well short of the regime's hard-line demand for an apology. Echoing a common sentiment, Wang Zhi said he thought the government had sacrificed the country's self-respect to preserve Sino-U.S. relations, which are critical to China's ambitions to develop and modernize its economy.

"The common people's impression of the Chinese government will be worse," said Wang, 39, who works for an environmental protection engineering company. "Even if we don't say that, we will think that in our mind."

U.S. and Chinese officials are to meet Wednesday to discuss who caused the accident and how such incidents can be avoided. China has said it will continue to press the United States to halt surveillance flights near its coast.

Yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said Beijing "urges the U.S. side to make a convincing explanation to the Chinese people, stop sending airplanes off China's coast to conduct reconnaissance activity and take effective measures to prevent such things from happening again."

The Chinese are expected to seek compensation for the loss of their fighter plane and pilot, Wang Wei, who has been lionized in the state-run news media as a patriot and hero. It was not clear when the U.S. aircraft, which is certain to provide enormous know-how for China's spy effort, would be returned to the American government.

As diplomats continue to haggle over the collision, a more explosive issue looms: the possible U.S. sale of high-tech weapons to China's arch-rival, Taiwan.

Bush is to decide this month whether to sell Taiwan destroyers equipped with the Aegis radar system, which could enable the island to shoot down incoming missiles from China. If Bush were to grant Taiwan's request - which is far from certain - Beijing would be furious.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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