The Spy-Plane Standoff: Lots of Sound, but Less Fury

Ordinary Chinese are indignant -- but not spitting mad the way they were when the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade

By Alysha Webb

"Why did the U.S. plane run into our plane? What was a U.S. plane doing in China's airspace?" Taxi drivers and storekeepers are still asking those questions after Sunday's collision between a Chinese jet and a U.S. surveillance plane. Never mind that the Chinese government has admitted, at least according to a report in the English-language China Daily, that the U.S. plane was not in Chinese airspace when the collision occurred. The Chinese press is playing the nationalist card for all it's worth. Color photos of planes similar to those involved are spread across the front page of a local newspaper, with a huge headline reading "The U.S. Violated China's Airspace."

The Chinese people are indignant, that's for sure. "Not only did the surveillance plane run into the Chinese plane, it even landed in a Chinese airport on Hainan Island!" declares Mr. Cao, a 54-year-old factory worker who won't tell me his given name. But for the most part, ordinary Chinese aren't belligerent. "National rights are concerned, so we have to be concerned," says Cao, "but it's hard to have an opinion about who's at fault because we don't have specifics." Some don't even seem too concerned with the matter. Zhang Li, a 72-year-old retired factory worker says he hasn't paid much attention to the reports.


 It's a far cry from the uproar over the May, 1999, bombing of China's Belgrade embassy. Then, protestors arrived by bus from college campuses to picket the U.S. consulate in Shanghai. A fire bomb was hurled at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, and American fast-food joints were attacked in various cities. This time around, the streets are clear outside the Shanghai consulate, and protestors were turned away by Chinese troops in Beijing. The State Dept. issued travel warnings to U.S. travelers in 1999, but it hasn't done so now.

As for foreign companies in China, "I think it's business as usual," says Sydney Chang, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and managing director of Armstrong World Industries (China). This latest bump in the rocky road of U.S.-China relations is a political matter rather than a business one and isn't likely to have an impact any company's future expansion plans. "It's a purely political incident. As a private company, I don't think we'll be influenced by that," says Takehito Soeda, corporate communications manager for Sony China.

Yes, politics and business often make an odd couple. But with WTO membership, an APEC meeting in Shanghai in October, and, of course, the bid for the 2008 Olympics on the table, businesspeople may be hoping that China will decide it's good business to downplay the political nature of the spy-plane incident.


  Xiao Ming is not so nonchalant. The 40-year-old Shanghainese is worried that tensions between the U.S. and China could rise, hurting her import-export business. Xiao isn't concerned with who's right in the dispute, only that the U.S. seems to be playing a round of political brinkmanship. "It's a political game," she says. "If the U.S. pushes China too hard, something might happen." In private conversation, some Chinese also criticize their government for not releasing the U.S. air crew.

The questions are slowly dying down here in Shanghai, though the local press is still flailing at the story. Businesspeople continue to worry that the dispute might escalate, though. "Everyone is watching which direction the situation will go," says Xiao. But Huang Cangfei, a 60-year-old retired factory worker, notes that the matter is not for the common people to be concerned with but something for the two governments to resolve.

Webb provides coverage of China for BusinessWeek from Shanghai

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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