A protest China's leaders can use

The Chinese public's anti-NATO sentiments are encouraged by government

There are growing signs that Beijing's Communist leadership is supporting mass anti-NATO protests here to bolster its own image and to fan the flames of Chinese nationalism.

Tens of thousands of Chinese students, workers, and provocateurs have besieged the US Embassy here since NATO bombs destroyed China's diplomatic compound in Belgrade Friday.

Similar protests have been staged in major cities throughout China, Hong Kong, and Macau, and the state-run news media are giving them positive coverage.

By Sunday the Beijing marches had increased in terms of both size and violence, and the Chinese government gave its first seal of approval for street protests in more than 20 years.

"The Chinese government is trying to use these protests to bolster its legitimacy and fashion itself as the great protector of the Chinese people," says a Western diplomat. "But it is playing with fire by condoning the use of violence, and it's hard to predict how the protests are going to play out," he adds.

Public protests have been banned since the Army gunned down pro-democracy demonstrators in the Chinese capital 10 years ago, but the ban has apparently been lifted to fuel the anti-US marches.

Demonstrators began chanting "Down with American Imperialism" at the US Embassy here on Saturday, just hours after NATO bombs blasted Beijing's embassy in Yugoslavia, killing at least three people. Late Saturday night, students who gathered outside the residence of US Ambassador James Sasser burned an American flag and repeatedly charged the gates of the building.

Although police cordoned off the residence, they made no attempt to prevent protesters from hurling stones and other projectiles into the area.

Despite the stepped-up violence, Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao stated in a special nationwide broadcast that the protests reflected the "patriotism of the Chinese people" and added that they had the Communist Party's full support.

"There are many different voices here," says a Beijing University student who asked not to be identified. "Most students are opposed to the use of violence, but some workers are saying that 'blood debts must be repaid in blood.' "

Blown-up photographs of three Chinese citizens killed in the Belgrade bombing are scattered throughout the ranks of the marchers here, along with placards reading "NATO = NAZI" or "Stop the Bombing."

AN engineering student at China's top aviation university says that government-appointed authorities at the school have been providing free busing to the anti-American protests, and there are other ample signs that Beijing's leaders are actively promoting the demonstrations.

Rather than block access to the US Embassy, Chinese police and paramilitary troops have erected special protest signs with arrows marking the route to the cluster of American buildings.

Outside embassy headquarters, security forces passively watched as crowds hurled rocks at lampposts, windows, and surveillance cameras inside the walled-off compound, and acted only to prevent foreign reporters and camera crews from recording the attacks.

"The government is using these students and workers to attack the US and its image as a democratic but arrogant superpower," says a young advertising executive observing Sunday's protest. "But ... it may only end when the violence really starts claiming casualties or turns against the [Communist] Party itself," she adds.

Many liberal-minded intellectuals here say the government is attempting to use the growing wave of anti-American nationalism here to unite the Chinese masses under the party's leadership.

The Communist Party gained power and popular support in part through expelling British, French, and Japanese imperialists from Chinese soil 50 years ago, and periodic bouts of xenophobia since then have usually translated into backing for Beijing's rulers.

"The party destroyed its own image by using troops against the pro-democracy movement in 1989," says a former anti-government activist.

"These anti-NATO protests are giving the party its first chance since 1989 to try to regain the support of educated Chinese by uniting against a common enemy," she adds.

Student protesters have been demanding an official apology and compensation for NATO's attack on Beijing's embassy. But the Chinese media have imposed a news blackout on NATO's explanation of the bombing as a "tragic mistake," as well as Ambassador Sasser's apology to the Chinese government. Instead, the government-controlled press has portrayed the bombing as a carefully-planned attack on China in retaliation for its moral support for Serbia.

The party-run People's Daily newspaper on Sunday said "Three missiles blasted the [Chinese] embassy from different angles, which completely exposed the aggressors' evil intentions and spilled Chinese blood in an act for which they must be held accountable."

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