A week of fury in Beijing is a reminder: China's hard-liners are alive and well
By TERRY McCARTHY and JAIME A. FLORCRUZ Beijing
Ambassador James Sasser knew real fear when his wife Mary told him over a mobile phone that a mob of Chinese students was smashing windows, pitching Molotov cocktails and apparently preparing to break into their Beijing residence. Sasser was half a mile away, trapped inside the U.S. embassy by a similar mob, unable to step outside the door without risking his life. "That was the worst of it all," Sasser told TIME, "not being able to get to my family." It was 3:30 on Sunday afternoon in Beijing, 34 hours after American bombs had wrecked the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Sasser tried calling his Beijing contacts but couldn't get anyone to pick up the phone. So he frantically placed a call to his counterpart in Washington, Li Zhaoxing. He pleaded with China's ambassador to the U.S. to contact officials in Beijing to provide more police guards. Awakened in the middle of the night, Li sleepily promised to do his best.
Meanwhile, on the street outside the embassy, Wang Li, 21, knew real anger, holding a rock and joining with the mob chanting, "Down with the Yankees!" Incensed by the bombing, which he did not believe was an accident, the Beijing Union University student said the crowd had a right "to vent our anger." The police made no attempt to stop Wang and the other protesters as they pelted the building with paving stones, eggs, tomatoes and bottles of ink.
So much for the vaunted "strategic partnership" between the U.S. and China. Less than a year ago, President Bill Clinton and President Jiang Zemin stood side by side in Beijing cordially airing their differences in a joint press conference. Last week Jiang refused to take Clinton's phone calls. "Without question," says a senior U.S. diplomat in Washington, "this marks the low point in relations since 1972," the year Richard Nixon visited China. When Madeleine Albright went to the Chinese embassy in Washington to offer her apologies, Ambassador Li kept her waiting in an anteroom for 20 minutes, then pointedly told her he had been busy "receiving condolences from all over the world."
The death of the three Chinese journalists was a tragedy, but the protests that their government orchestrated seemed disproportionate. "Spontaneous demonstrators" were bused by the government to the embassy district, told where to march and given a selection of slogans to shout. As the protests got ugly, China squandered a lot of the sympathy it might have gained by a more measured response. "For every person on the Hill whose image is of a burned-out embassy in Belgrade," said a White House official, "there is at least one other person whose image is of a U.S. embassy under siege in Beijing."
Speculation grew that the high-pitched opera in Beijing was being staged as part of an internal political struggle. Chinese politicians vie for power like politicians anywhere else, but in a one-party state, much of the infighting is secretive and indirect. The two leaders who have linked their fortunes to improving relations with the U.S.--Jiang and his Premier, Zhu Rongji--kept their heads down during the week's protests. There is a whole cadre of other ambitious Chinese politicians hitching their careers to the proposition that America is an enemy, not an ally. Last week, at least, China's complex power balance seemed to tip their way. "Zhu is under a lot of pressure now," said an associate of the reformist Premier's. "He has been quiet all week--that's not a good sign."
Not that Washington hasn't countered Chinese hysteria with its own hard-knuckled attacks. For months lawmakers have assailed China on human rights, nuclear spying, campaign-fund violations and trade issues. At week's end the New York Times published a report that the Chinese were on the verge of deploying a new missile whose nuclear warhead design is based on stolen U.S. technology. But much of the anti-China rhetoric is partisan in nature, aimed at embarrassing the Clinton Administration. So poisonous is the mood on the Hill that few dare to voice the other side of the case: why it may be in the interest of the U.S. to engage, not alienate, China. When Zhu visited Washington last month with a list of concessions aimed at gaining China's entry into the World Trade Organization, Clinton took one glance over his shoulder at Congress and rebuffed him. Now that anti-American feeling is high in China, Zhu will have an even tougher time selling reform.
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