On the street, Chinese anger not so deep

Beijing's rhetoric over US spy plane has kept public calm.

A crowd gathers around an empassioned speaker in downtown Beijing. But nary a word is heard about spy planes.

Jingoism takes a back seat to the Backstreet Boys at this early April air-conditioner sale, with balloon-blowing contests and two young women dancing to the CD in sequins and platform shoes. A bit of Americana, almost.

Nine days after a US-China mid-air collision, the news media here continue to ratchet up demands for a US apology and rhetoric about a "hegemonic" and "bullying" America.

Yet while a similarly harsh tone is prevalent in Internet chat rooms, feelings on the streets do not run very deep. Chinese are expressing a mild mix of suspicion and admiration for the United States, and many echo officialdom in asking for an apology.

Many ordinary people have not heard of the incident, or don't think about it much. A surprising number also make a distinction between the plane dispute and the 1999 US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, which they see as deliberate.

"I think of it as an accident," says Yang, a factory worker. "It is not all the Americans' fault. Some percentage is China's fault."

"I don't care what happens in Hainan," says Yu Li, who works for a Japanese air conditioner joint venture. "I care what is happening inside my company."

Still, say China experts, the episode is feeding into a well of national pride over China's past and its rising role, worry over a free-market future, a historical fear of always being injured by the foreigner, and a carefully nurtured suspicion about the US.

Educated and uneducated people alike speak of "how far the plane came" on its mission. "The incident occurred near the border of China. This was not a Chinese plane off Hawaii or San Francisco," says Mei Renyi, a political scientist at Beijing Foreign Studies Institute. "People in the know may be aware that spy planes have been out there for 30 years - but ordinary people don't," he says. "Most Chinese were offended by Bush's statement for quick return of the crew.... If this were a Chinese plane on American territory ... Americans and the Congress would make an uproar."

A taxi driver says, "We are too soft, too weak. We should stop spy planes with an atom bomb." He continues, "But I think they should send the hostages [sic] home."

Yesterday, after the fourth US meeting with the 24-member Navy crew, officials emphasized its success and reiterated the US goal of the crew's and the plane's release.

China's news is managed so that the average person will only see or read official sources, with their carefully controlled emotional content. Some Chinese websites will now allow uncontroversial "semiofficial" news to appear. However in recent months, a number of freer websites and dialogue groups have been blocked by officials.

At the outset of the April 1 incident, Chinese media kept the news at a minimum. But both TV and newspapers are now treating the affair, particularly the fate of missing pilot Wang Wei, as a major story.

Last weekend, Mr. Wang's wife was shown on television with top generals and party leaders. Next she is shown in a hospital, under care for stress. The TV switches to Wang's hospitalized parents, being treated for a similar malady. Wang's wife and his father read understandably emotional letters to President Bush. "The US claims to care about human rights so much, what about our rights?" says the elder Wang.

Western diplomats say China has more carefully kept feelings in check during this particular crisis. "With exceptions, the coverage has been much fairer than two years ago during the embassy bombing," says one. "At the same time, it is clear ... that China sees itself as the next great world power, and the foreigners are out to thwart that."

Some argue that keeping emotional content subdued serves several purposes.

"The leadership in Beijing is more worried about a crowd getting out of control, than about these spy missions, that's for sure," says a prominent scholar who requested anonymity. "You whip up a crowd ... and you have to worry about the crowd turning on you. The leaders were shocked at how quickly people were stirred in 1999," when tens of thousands marched in the streets and threw stones at the US Embassy.

In the course of normal daily life, serious disagreements may exist between elites, the new moneyed class, and working people. But when it comes to a national issue, everyone unifies, experts say. Still, a diversity of opinion exists - though perhaps not always with foreigners present.

When a former Air Force personnel director, Mr. Hong, is alone with an interpreter, he says, "The crew should not be returned until we clear up the Wang Wei search.... Mao unified China, Deng Xiaoping got Hong Kong and Macau back. What has Jiang done? I think there must one day be a war with the US [to get them out of Asia.]"

Yet an executive with a British joint venture, a Mr. Hu, doubted China's version of the story. "Why would the US attack a Chinese jet in a high-tech plane that is slow and carries 24 staff? Something's wrong."

Part of the background to Chinese perceptions is a history of isolation. Outsiders have often brought trouble. Ethnic nationalism plays a role as well; China is 93 percent ethnic Han. China has been opening gradually; today there is $115 billion total investment between it and the US, and several dozen McDonald's in Beijing. (The Big Mac is sold in China as the lu wu ba - or "huge incomparable warlord.")

The Internet is a wild card in shaping perceptions. "We are ready for war, America," and "Never let the 24 go," are some milder comments. In a recent Beijing University website dialogue, a student said "we should concentrate on our economy," rather than rattling sabers.

"You shouldn't underestimate the power of the Net," says a Western source who tracks Chinese electronic discourse. "But you shouldn't overestimate it, either."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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