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China's dilemma in the fight against terrorism

Floweres surround the U.S. embassy in Beijing
Floweres surround the U.S. embassy in Beijing  

By Jaime FlorCruz
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief

(CNN) -- In Beijing's cyber-cafes, customers click into websites and join chatrooms where sympathy for America mixes with anti-U.S. sentiments.

Shrill anti-American postings stand out.

"Heroes, brave men who liberated the world," one posting hails the terrorists who attacked New York and Washington. "America under attack --it deserved it!" taunts another.

To be sure, these are extremist voices of a small minority. But the love-hate ambivalence reverberates in living rooms, restaurants and even on Beijing's campuses.

"Terrorism is wrong but I personally think this was a lesson for the United States," says a Peking University student. "From now on, the U.S. won't be so arrogant and reckless."

Voices like that complicate China's eagerness to join the united front against terrorism.

No less than President Jiang Zemin has pledged to do so in a phone call with U.S. President George W. Bush last week.

But Beijing's challenge is to match those platitudes with deeds.

Any U.S. strike in Afghanistan would put Beijing in an awkward position given its opposition to any kind of "interference in other countries' internal affairs".

Beijing is averse to foreign intervention also because it could set a precedent in its own troubled regions of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Instead, Beijing advocates international dialogue and multilateral solutions to global problems.

"China is willing to discuss at the United Nations Security Council any proposals against terrorism," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao. "All activities should abide by international law, especially the U.N. charter."

Something in return

Anti-American feelings are evident in China, particularly after the 1999 embassy bombing and the April 1 collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. plane
Anti-American feelings are evident in China, particularly after the 1999 embassy bombing and the April 1 collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. plane  

Beijing also wants something in return for its support.

"China, by the same token, has reasons to ask the United States to give its support and understanding in the fight against terrorism and separatists," says Zhu.

In the border region of northwestern Xinjiang, China is fighting Muslim separatists who are waging a violent campaign for independence against Chinese rule.

They reportedly get weapons, military training and moral support from Muslim rebel groups in Afghanistan and are able to cross in and out of China along its porous borders.

China's preoccupation with the radicalization of Muslim separatists has also prompted it to push for the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to fight "terrorism, separatism and extremism".

Last week, prime ministers of Russia, China and four Central Asian states vowed in a joint statement to fight the "terrorism" that devastated the United States last week.

The Chinese leadership will need more cover before China could unconditionally join America in a large-scale war to combat terrorism.

President Jiang cannot appear too pro-American, lest he gets attacked by the party's conservative wing.


There is a ground-swell of anti-Americanism in China, emanating from the "150 years of humiliation" the Chinese suffered in the hands of Western imperialist invaders.

This was stoked by the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and yet again by the April 1 crash of a Chinese fighter plane after a mid-air collision with a U.S. spy plane.

America's ham-handed policies and over-bearing posture have reinforced Chinese perception that the U.S. is a bully playing globo-cop.

Most Chinese commiserate with the American victims of the attacks, but they invariably blame the attacks on U.S. "hegemonistic" foreign policy.

Some equate the Chinese embassy bombing and the April 1 mid-air collision with the last week's catastrophic attacks.

"Now they know how it feels to be bombed," says a college student.

The fallout from last week's terrorist attacks in the United States, now squarely blamed on Osama bin Laden, offers China a rare political break.

Beijing can show itself as a responsible member of the international community and also tighten ties with the U. S. ahead of President Bush's scheduled visit to China next month.

Or it can also pander to the extremist views in Chinese chat-rooms and watch from the sidelines with arms akimbo.

As Washington builds a multi-national "united front" against terrorism, Beijing's choice is: join in or be left out.

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