Attacks reveal ambivalence of China on U.S.

Many embrace culture but see America as arrogant aggressor

War On Terrorism

The World

November 17, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - When Jason Bu first heard the news that airliners had plowed into the World Trade Center, he rushed to a neighbor's apartment to find out if it was true. The news made him happy: "It's great!" Bu said. And the next morning, he taped a sign in Chinese and English to the back of his car, saying, "This is a lesson." As far as he was concerned, the hijackers had given the U.S. government a taste of its own bullying.

A day later, though, he tore off the sign. "I realized how many people had died," said Bu. "I really felt sorry for that."

The terrorist attacks and the American-led war in Afghanistan have helped unveil the strong, contradictory feelings here about the American government, the American economy and American military strength. A lively debate has taken place - much of it on the Internet - about the glee some Chinese expressed at the destruction in New York and Washington and the reasons behind that reaction.

The United States has more influence on China than any other country, but many here remain deeply ambivalent about meiguo, or the "beautiful country," as it is known in Chinese. Young Chinese avidly watch Hollywood blockbusters, NBA basketball games and dream of attending Ivy League universities.

At the same time, they resent what they see as an American tendency toward arrogance and attempts by the U.S. government to prevent China's rise as a global power. As in the Muslim world, some Chinese drew satisfaction from the terrorist attacks because of what they saw as past aggression by the United States.

Liberal intellectuals, though, attributed much of the response to flaws in Chinese society and culture. The culprits, they say, include nationalism, a penchant for jealousy and an ends-justifies-the-means political culture.

In the past, Chinese people have responded sympathetically when disaster has struck the United States. In 1995, Jason Bu worked as a customer service representative for General Electric in Kansas. He remembers the day a bomb tore apart the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. Bu says he felt only sorrow.

In recent years, though, two incidents changed Bu's feelings toward the United States. First, in 1999, came the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. The United States said it was an accident. Bu, like most Chinese, believes it was deliberate.

Then, earlier this year, a Chinese fighter jet and an American spy plane collided off China's southern coast. The Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, was never found, and China held the U.S. air crew for 11 days.

"I think of that as a turning point," says Bu, who works as a management consultant. "Even the American people and the government said it was our fault. That's arrogant."

Many Chinese were furious that the United States could spy off China's coast with impunity while China lacked the military technology to spy on America in the same way. Bu likened the United States to a stalker and China as a helpless victim. After the Sept. 11 attacks, some Chinese felt vindicated for what they saw as their nation's past humiliations.

"For our embassy in Yugoslavia! For our pilot, Wang Wei!" an Internet user wrote Sept. 12 on Sohu.com, one of the country's most popular Web portals. "It's their turn to taste how it feels to be bombed!"

By its nature, China's insular culture discourages people from exposing the country's darker side to the rest of the world. However, some people viewed the responses to the Sept. 11 attacks as sufficiently harsh to subject them to unusual public scrutiny.

Shi Yinhong runs the Center for American Studies at People's University in Beijing. Although China has no reliable polls on such things, he believes the majority of Chinese were appalled by the attacks and felt sorry for the victims.

Shi attributes some of the exultant comments, though, to a political hangover from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Tse-tung used any means to preserve his vision of communism and turned the nation against itself at a cost an estimated 1 million lives. The result, Shi says, is a political culture that does not take ethics into account when weighing ends and means.

"In this moral vacuum, people at first cannot make the correct moral judgment," said Shi, sitting at a Starbucks across from People's University.

Other observers cite what they see as deeper problems in Chinese history and culture. They include what some describe as a propensity for jealousy and a particular satisfaction at seeing others brought low.

"I feel Lu Xun's character, `Ah Q,' sums up the Chinese personality best," says Yu Jie, a popular essayist and one of the nation's sharper social critics. Yu, 28, is referring to an infamous character from one of China's most famous 20th-century novels, The True Story of Ah Q. An impoverished misanthrope, Ah Q is obsessed with saving face and takes pleasure in the failure of others.

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