China: After The Rage

Damage to ties with the U.S. could last for years

As the remains of three Chinese journalists killed in Belgrade arrived in Beijing, signs abound that efforts to contain the damage to U.S.-China relations are under way. Flags at the battered U.S. Embassy were flying at half mast to honor those killed in the accidental bombing of China's embassy. Angry mobs dispersed as official TV finally screened President Bill Clinton's apologies. Washington and Beijing will discuss soon whether there is any way to salvage China's bid to enter the World Trade Organization this year.

But anyone who thinks the deep schism that has opened up between China and the U.S. can be quickly bridged with some deft diplomacy is mistaken. Beyond the differences between the two governments over fundamental issues such as security and human rights, the grassroots rage vented on the streets of Beijing over several days of protest was real. It threatens to color bilateral relations for years to come.

From blue-collar workers to college students and well-traveled professionals, a population that sometimes idolized America has grown disillusioned over Washington's treatment of their country. The bombing "shows how futile it is to try to please the Americans," says Beijing University international relations professor Jia Qingguo, who holds a doctorate from Cornell University. "Chinese people are disgusted." There is no reason to expect the mood to dissipate quickly now that Beijing has turned off its fiery propaganda barrage.

Passions in Washington are running high, too. American sympathy for China after the embassy bombing quickly turned to dismay over Beijing's handling of the incident. Beijing leaders told their public that the bombing was intentional, they endorsed the mass protests, and they did nothing to prevent crowds from trashing the U.S. consulate in Chengdu or laying siege to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, where U.S. Ambassador James R. Sasser was trapped for several days. If this were a ploy to wring major concessions from the U.S. in the WTO talks, it could misfire badly.

LOUDER VOICES. Already, criticism of China was intense in Washington over issues ranging from human rights to allegations that Beijing stole vital U.S. defense secrets. Even as the Clinton Administration scrambles to control the damage from the bombing, Republicans on Capital Hill plan to turn up the volume when the committee led by Representative Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) finally releases its report on Chinese spying.

Given the depth of emotion, it is starting to look as if the embassy bombing will go down as "one of the biggest setbacks to bilateral relations of the past decade," says Johns Hopkins University sinologist David M. Lampton, a veteran of U.S.-China affairs since the days of ping-pong diplomacy. "This will be in the league of Tiananmen Square and the Taiwan Strait crisis [of 1996]."

Growing popular discontent in Beijing poses risks that are just as serious for China's leaders as they are for the U.S. Because the Communist Party's propaganda machine already was operating at full blast over NATO's attack on Serbia, there was no way to deal with the embassy tragedy with anything but strident nationalism and anti-Americanism. The trouble is that it may be hard to turn it off completely. That leaves President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji exposed. Both have staked their reputations on improving ties with the U.S. and opening the economy to global competition. If they are seen as being soft in the face of Western bullying, they will be attacked by hard-liners. The very future of China's economic reforms may hang in the balance.

Some analysts fear that the schism may now undo what little rapprochement there is. Despite two successful summits in 1997 and 1998, Clinton and Jiang didn't resolve disagreements over Taiwan and human rights. China's angry denunciations of NATO's military intervention in Serbia show U.S. efforts at "constructive engagement" don't guarantee that Washington and Beijing will bridge major differences over global security issues. The U.S. regards its attempt to halt the bloodbath in Kosovo as the act of a responsible superpower. To China, NATO's bombing of Belgrade was gross interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. "It's clear that the U.S. and China have very, very different visions of how the post-Cold War world should be run," says George Washington University's Harry Harding, a leading expert on Sino-American relations. Adds Harding, "The idea of a constructive strategic partnership looks less and less feasible."

To be sure, both China and the U.S. have too much at stake to allow a complete diplomatic collapse. With potential hot spots ranging from the Korean Peninsula to Taiwan, both must stay in communication. As the impact of the Asia crisis is being felt as industries across China lay off workers, America remains a vital source of investment and technology and the most important market for everything from toys to electric appliances. "No matter how bad political relations become, it is impossible that the economic relationship would break down," says Chinese economist and writer He Qinglian.

Nor does the Communist Party want to see anti-U.S. rallies turn into protests against the government, as often happened in Chinese history when leaders appeared weak in the face of foreign bullying. By May 11, after letting thousands of protesters vent their anger for days, the police were out in full force to discourage further demonstrations.

The fate of China's WTO bid will test the true depth of the diplomatic rift. The White House is considering whether to send U.S. trade negotiator Robert Cassidy to Beijing within a few weeks. But there are signs that China's position has hardened since Zhu failed to cut a trade deal with President Bill Clinton in April. At the same time, the Clinton Administration can't settle for a weaker deal as Presidential elections approach next year. "It's hard to imagine a scenario where we can put things back together" for a deal this fall, says a U.S. negotiator. That will be a big setback for American businesses ranging from commercial banks to telecom providers, who would have gained greater market access under Zhu's offer.

NEW FOES. The big problem is that the momentum Zhu generated at home toward striking a deal has stalled. Industries with the most to lose from greater foreign competition, such as telecom, automobiles, and chemicals, have mobilized in opposition to the concessions Zhu offered. "There is going to be a lot of backtracking," says Owen D. Nee Jr., a partner with American law firm Coudert Brothers in Hong Kong.

A case in point is the change of heart at Shenzhen-based Zhongxing Telecom, which makes digital switches in competition with U.S., French, German, and Japanese companies in China. Zhongxing benefits from high duties on imports and government edicts that instruct telecom operators to buy from home-grown manufacturers whenever possible. These barriers would fall if China entered the WTO. Before the bombing, Zhongxing executives said they welcomed competition. But now company official Yan Gaoming says: "We should definitely not open our entire market to foreign companies."

Conservatives who favor going slowly with liberalization seem to have gained the upper hand. Other Chinese officials--figuring they hold the high moral ground--are gearing up to exploit the bombing tragedy in order to boost their leverage in the WTO talks. An article in Beijing's official China Business Times suggests that the U.S. could do some "small favors," such as "promising to accelerate China's entry into the WTO," to compensate for the embassy bombing.

Political timing also is working against a speedy resolution of trade differences. U.S. negotiators already face a tight deadline. They had hoped to wrap up the details with Beijing before June 3, the day by which Clinton said he would decide whether to renew China's most-favored-nation trading status. Despite his withering anti-China rhetoric, Senate Majority leader Trent Lott assured U.S. business leaders in a private meeting in April that the Republicans would approve a deal in time for the WTO's ministerial meeting in November. Now, a WTO deal this fall will be tough. With U.S. elections in 2000, there's a risk that the issue will be shelved for several years.

What's more, the Republicans are determined to use the political ammunition pouring out of congressional committees to inflict maximum damage on Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore. As the protests were still under way in Beijing, a House panel was hearing testimony about how the Chinese government secretly funneled cash to Clinton's reelection campaign. The Cox Committee report is expected to detail evidence of Chinese espionage and abuse of technology-transfer deals with U.S. companies. "That will precipitate a lot of anger and frustration," says a GOP House aide.

Republican firebrands are also seizing on China's response to the bombing as evidence of Beijing's duplicity. Charges GOP lawmaker Cox: "The organization of anti-American demonstrations has laid bare the manipulative nature of the Communist government." Rather than expressing true anger at the U.S., says Cox, Beijing is using the protest "to gain leverage in negotiations."

LAST STRAW. On that count, the Republicans are underestimating the depth of emotions among the Chinese. Tensions have been building since the early days of the Clinton Administration over a string of perceived slights. Many Chinese blamed the U.S. Congress for scuttling Beijing's bid to host the 2000 Olympics. An even bigger blow to Chinese patriotism, which has swelled with the country's growing economic power, was Clinton's reversal of long-held policy by allowing Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to visit the U.S. in 1995--despite diplomatic assurances to the contrary. When China held threatening military maneuvers before a Taiwanese presidential election, the U.S. sent aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait. When Washington and Tokyo began discussing a missile pact to protect Asia, many Chinese viewed the move as an attempt to contain their rising power.

The final straw was Belgrade. What really enraged Beijing was that NATO brushed aside its objections to bombing the Serbian capital even though China is one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. The Chinese media reported only the suffering of Serbs while ignoring the atrocities against ethnic Albanians. The errant bombs that landed on China's embassy touched off a powder keg.

Why did Beijing decide to exploit the tragedy by claiming the attack was deliberate? One reason is that leaders may have wanted to distract students from focusing on the upcoming 10th anniversary of Tiananmen. But in a way, Beijing's hand also was forced by its one-sided coverage of the NATO bombings of Serbia. And after hearing so much about America's superior military technology and its ability to drop bombs with pinpoint accuracy, analysts say, many ordinary Chinese would not have believed that the embassy attack was an error. Had the party quietly accepted the U.S. explanation, it would have seemed cowardly. Says a senior Clinton Administration official: "Protesters will say the reformers are simply kowtowing to the West, continuing the humiliation of China." The party was better off co-opting the protesters than suppressing them--even if the price was deteriorating relations with Washington.

After a period of mourning in Beijing, Washington hopes to begin mending fences. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who cancelled a previous trip, hopes to travel to China in June and explain how the accident happened. At this point, Western apologies may not be enough to appease the anger of the public. "You blame it on some old maps," says an unconvinced Su Ge, assistant president of the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing. Adds China Institute of Contemporary International Relations scholar Yan Xuetong, who has a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley: "Chinese are being killed, and the killer just says `sorry' with an indifferent face."

This is a rage that will not fade easily. Clearing the last demonstrators off the streets will be just the first step in mending a badly damaged relationship.

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