Why the news on China caught me off guard

On Tuesday, I figured I could write this Friday column early because I had it all doped out.

The hard-liners in the Chinese People's Liberation Army were in control of the situation of the American crew on Hainan Island, I wrote, and their demands were escalating. Their insistence on an "investigation" of the mid-air collision of their jet fighter with the US surveillance plane suggested that the crew would be held as witnesses, possibly defendants.

Their demand that the United States cease surveillance flights along the Chinese coast (which apparently had been suspended after the collision) was a bold declaration of sovereignty over the South China Sea, up to Taiwan. It seemed likely that China would hold the 24 Americans hostage until President Bush's decision later this month on whether to provide advanced weapons to Taiwan over China's opposition.

I wrote that the Chinese were taking the measure of President Bush, as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had taken the measure of President John F. Kennedy in Vienna in 1961. Khrushchev miscalculated that Kennedy, unable to bring off an invasion of Cuba, was weak. The result was the Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis.

I also had historical precedent for the sense of humiliation that China had to feel, confronted with a technically advanced superpower that could maintain surveillance with impunity. In 1956, stationed in Moscow, I was present when Gen. Nathan Twining, Air Force chief of staff, attending the annual Soviet aviation show, was accused by Khrushchev of operating spy flights over the Soviet Union.

Not until 1960 did the Soviets develop an antiaircraft missile that could reach the high-flying US planes. Then they shot down a U-2 reconnaissance plane and, when President Eisenhower refused to apologize, Khrushchev stormed out of the Paris summit. The pilot, Gary Powers, was subjected to a show trial and two years in prison.

It was a similar sense of humiliation, I wrote, that led the Chinese to send fighters to harass the eavesdropping high-tech American planes. The collision was an accident, but one that had been waiting to happen.

And, I suggested, it might be some time before the crew came home as the Chinese used them to assert their own dignity. A great analysis, but mistaken. And, while acknowledging my clouded crystal ball, I ask myself where I went wrong.

It was, I think, in pressing historical analogies too far. In this age of globalization and a $110 billion favorable trade balance with America, China cannot afford a rupture of normal relations with the US in the interest of nationalistic pride.

Never having been to China, I was not sensitive to the internal dynamic in a country becoming less monolithic and more responsive to public opinion and economic interest groups.

The inscrutable East may be less inscrutable than it used to be - except to me.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. His memoir, 'Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism' (Pocket), is coming out in May.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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