Suspicion is a two-way mirror

Debbie Stevens brushes off her hands after building a shelf at a store in Pentagon City, and gives her prognosis for US-China relations.

"We're pretty much on a collision course," says the clerk, who comes from a military family. "We think in different ways. We grew up with different philosophies. Certainly, we're going to clash."

An ocean away in China, street corners and Internet chatrooms are brimming with anti-American sentiment unleashed by the loss of a Chinese fighter pilot and jet, which crashed after colliding with a US spy plane.

Jin Tao, a Beijing businesswoman in pinstripes, complains that the US is "rich and strong and wants to push others around." Postings on a popular Chinese website are more venomous. "Beat the American devils," says one.

As the brinkmanship over the military brush intensifies - with Beijing demanding an apology and the Bush administration refusing - the highly charged popular emotions that have long characterized America's interactions with China are once again on full display.

On both sides, deep feelings of nationalistic pride combine with old, mental scripts that Chinese and Americans seem to endlessly replay, constraining leaders as they seek a way out of the current diplomatic standoff.

"In China, there is a long story of victimization by the West, and the Western countries being aggressive toward China and ... bending it to their will," says Richard Madsen, author of "China and the American Dream." "This deep, lingering suspicion is always there, available to be amplified."

China's fear of foreign bullying dates at least as far back as the 19th-century Opium Wars and the forced opening of Chinese ports by Western powers - events that remain mainstays of Chinese Communist propaganda.

Today, China's wariness is focused squarely on the United States, as its emergence as the world's sole superpower has coincided with a series of diplomatic and military showdowns with Beijing over the past decade.

The American forced search in 1993 of a Chinese ship suspected of carrying poison gas, the 1996 dispatching of two US battle groups to the Taiwan Strait after China fired missiles off the island, the 1999 US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade - all created "a mental picture of military intimidation against the Chinese people," says David Lampton, author of a book on US-China relations titled "Same Bed, Different Dreams."

Americans, too, have their script on China. "Our stories on China go back to the cold-war era, to Red China - that still rings a lot of bells among a sector of the American public," says Mr. Madsen, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego.

Today, many Americans "see China as the last remaining communist power, as sort of a piece of unfinished business for America," he says. "They would like to change China - sometimes this is connected to religious change, by missionaries - and, if not to change it, to fight it."

Such sentiments in America have grown in tandem with China's rising economic, technological, and political strength. Seating his last customers for the night, Max Sagastizado, manager of the Chevy Mexican Restaurant in Arlington, Va., explains his uneasiness about Beijing.

"Down in their hearts Chinese Communists have antagonism toward the United States," he says, as salsa music plays around him. "They want to exceed the US in nuclear technology. Then I think China will turn around and dominate Japan and other Asian countries to expand their power."

As US-China contacts have mushroomed and the breadth and complexity of the relationship has expanded vastly in the past two decades, frictions have arisen over issues such as ballooning trade deficits and persistent human rights violations.

For many Americans such as Ms. Stevens, images of Tiananmen Square, where China used troops and tanks to crush pro-democracy protests in 1989, remain vivid. "I was appalled by Tiananmen Square and what I've heard of the human rights abuses," says Stevens, who asked that her real name not be used.

Tiananmen, where hopes for democracy were raised and then brutally dashed, looms especially large in American minds. The US television audience for the event was astronomical, approaching the number who viewed the lunar landing, Mr. Lampton says.

Such deeply rooted attitudes play into the hands of hard-line political factions in Beijing and Washington, creating difficulties for moderate leaders who seek to steady the relationship. In Washington, conservative Republicans are pressing the Bush administration to adopt a tough stance toward China in the wake of the weaker Clinton administration.

In Beijing, anti-American attitudes are considered safer for officials amid the uncertainties surrounding the succession of President Jiang Zemin.

Nevertheless, there is a silver lining in the growing US-China codependence, mainly based on vital economic interests but also in shared strategic concerns. China is now America's fourth largest trading partner, and at least some Americans and Chinese recognize that, pragmatically, we have to get along.

Dennis Lok, a Hong Kong garment salesman in Beijing for a show, says he feels no ill will toward the US for the air incident. "The United States is no different from any other country. It wants to protect its interests," he says.

In a quiet neighborhood of Livingston, Mont., town commissioner Caron Cooper agrees. "We need to be friends," she says. "China is such an enormous market for American goods.... How can you ignore a market with well over a billion people?"

Contributing to this report were staff writer Robert Marquand in Beijing and Todd Wilkinson in Bozeman, Mont.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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