In one way the bombing of the Belgrade embassy came as a boon to China's rulers. They were able to organize violent, but carefully modulated demonstrations against America that might deflect some of the passions building up among the Chinese people with the approach of June 4, the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Better anger directed against "foreign devils" than against China's repressive practices.
But, it is noteworthy how careful the government has been to burn no bridges to the United States. Meetings on arms control, arms proliferation, and human rights are postponed, but not canceled. Consultations on trade and on North Korea proceed unhindered. Investigations of the embassy bombing are demanded as though the regime does not believe the bombing was an accident (maybe its respect for American technology is greater than warranted). More formal apologies are demanded than the several already given by President Clinton. But diplomatic relations are not broken off.
This is almost a mirror image of how President Bush dealt with American anger over Tiananmen in 1989. He "deeply deplored" the Chinese resort to force. He suspended "high level exchanges," but he made no move to interfere with trade. Then, in direct contravention of his ban on high-level exchanges, he sent National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger on a secret mission to Beijing.
They told Deng Xiaoping that the president had felt obliged to placate American public opinion, but that he wanted to maintain good relations with China.
Now President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji may have in mind some corresponding version of that, but they are in a delicate position. As sponsors of engagement with America, they have a lot to answer for internally. They were already in some trouble. Their economic concessions have not won China entry into the World Trade Organization. Chinese nuclear espionage and political campaign financing continue to be live issues in the American Congress and press.
Chinese leaders may have trouble convincing their Politburo colleagues that all this and the Belgrade bombing, despite President Clinton's apologies, do not add up to the foreign devil once again humiliating China.
Under the circumstances it is not surprising that, having the United States on the defensive, the regime in Beijing flaunts its toughness by threatening to veto any United Nations Security Council resolution on Kosovo unless NATO bombing is stopped.
But efforts are being made to phase out the anti-American demonstrations which, at one point, apparently threatened to get out of control.
No fear haunts Communist leaders more than loss of control at home.
There were already signs of nervousness in Beijing two weeks ago when some 20,000 members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement gathered around the Communist compound in a silent demonstration.
Now, after the Belgrade bombing, the regime has tried to uncork the pressure cooker just enough to let some steam out before the Tiananmen anniversary.
But as the Gorbachev perestroika experiment a decade ago showed, nothing is harder to achieve than controlled decontrol of authoritarian rule.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.