Behind Chinese furor: mistrust
NATO's bombing of a Chinese embassy is the latest strain on often
WASHINGTON — As rock-hurling Chinese protesters mobbed US diplomatic missions across China this week, denouncing "big noses" and "American imperialism," Wash-ington officials were clearly taken aback.
"The demonstrations are the largest they've had in 10 years. No one I know could have forecast a reaction this strong," said one official, fresh from the State Department's China crisis-management team.
Yet the deep-seated popular suspicion unleashed in China by NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade is in many ways emblematic of a culture of mistrust that pervades Sino-American ties.
Today, such sentiments are underpinning a severe downturn in relations between the world's most populous and most powerful nations - with potential repercussions far beyond the Balkans conflict.
"We could look back on this and see it as the beginning of the second cold war - with China," says Harry Harding, a China expert at George Washington University here.
Mutual suspicions between Chinese and Americans - never far from the surface - have a legacy that reaches back more than 150 years and is rooted in a history of military and cultural conflict.
Chinese, a proud people who call their nation "Zhong Guo," literally "the Middle Kingdom," are keenly sensitive to what some call the "century of humiliation" beginning in the mid-1800s. Then, Europeans and Americans - often caricatured as wild, red-haired, and large-nosed "foreign devils" - used gunboat diplomacy to secure treaty ports and the China trade. Images of foreigners burning the Qing Dynasty imperial palaces north of Beijing remain vivid in many Chinese minds today.
Meanwhile, Americans in China took the opposite view, seeing their role as a high-minded one of converting an uncivilized people to Christianity and imprinting them with American education and values.
Despite shifting rhetoric, this early history framed the way Chinese and Americans thought about each other during the 1949 Communist revolution, the Korean War, and xenophobic Maoist political campaigns. The 1970s rapprochement beginning with President Nixon's 1972 visit to China saw both sides work to hold differences in check in order to oppose Soviet expansionism. Yet since the end of the cold war, old tensions have reemerged and in some ways increased with the growing interdependence of the US and China.
"With the threat from the Soviet Union gone, there is not as powerful a rationale to keep the mutual suspicions squelched," says Randy Schriver, the Pentagon's former top official on China. "So they immediately rise to the fore when there is an excuse."
Today, significant constituencies in both countries are opposed to closer US-China relations - driven by differences in ideology and values, economic and strategic interests, and, to a degree, ethnic prejudice. In the US, critics of China range from labor unions to Christian anti-abortion groups to politicians concerned about human rights and the military rise of a communist power.
Similarly in China, laid-off workers resist market reforms promoted by Washington, Marxist ideologues and other social conservatives recoil at American cultural inroads, and political and military leaders attack what they see as US efforts to contain China.
Groups critical of US-China relations are represented in both nations, for example in Congress and among hardliners in the Chinese Communist Party. Whenever troubles arise, such as the 1996 showdown in the Taiwan Strait or this year over alleged Chinese espionage and the NATO embassy bombing, these voices rally.
"There is a kind of national ambivalence, and when something like this happens it gives a special credence and energy to these people who have all along been skeptical about the relationship," says Richard Madsen, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego and author of "China and the American Dream."
In turn, these critics have turned on political and business leaders interested in building stronger US-China ties. President Clinton, for instance, has fallen under attack from members of Congress for allegedly compromising US national security to improve relations with China. Meanwhile, China's Premier Zhu Rongji has recently been denounced by opponents and some protesters as a traitor for making major trade concessions to the US.
Indeed, many analysts believe that the Chinese government felt compelled to condone and encourage the vehemently nationalistic, anti-American protests that have swept China in recent days in order to protect itself from charges it is being bullied by a foreign power.
"Every regime prior to the Communist regime fell in large measure because it didn't respond strongly enough to foreign insults," says Doug Paal, a former National Security Council Asia expert.
The White House, by failing to apologize swiftly and unequivocally for the attack, exacerbated the Chinese reaction, experts say. "The president should have been on the hotline to Jiang Zemin instantly," says Mr. Paal. Mr. Jiang has reportedly refused to take Clinton's calls.
Yet by sanctioning the protests, China is also walking a tightrope between "basically destroying the US-China relationship and losing legitimacy," says Mr. Harding. With official ties suspended in several areas and Americans warned against travel to China, reviving the relationship could take months. "This is a major setback for Sino-US relations," says Doug Bereuter (R) of Nebraska, a member of the House select committee on China.