A weird and unfortunate incident involving a US border guard who beat a female Chinese tourist at Niagara Falls last week is getting increasing play in China's state-run media as a high-emotions story, with the public receiving continual images of the woman's grotesquely wounded face in newspapers, on the Internet, and on TV talk shows.
For state media to feature so prominently a racially sensitive story, and to stoke the flames of considerable anger felt on the street here yesterday, suggests some cooling on the Chinese side of Sino-US relations, analysts say. After being phoned by Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, Secretary of State Colin Powell vowed to conduct a full investigation into the matter.
Zhao Yan, a Chinese businesswoman on holiday, was chased and grabbed late at night on July 21 near Niagara's famed Rainbow Bridge by a guard who thought she was part of a drug deal involving pounds of marijuana. After creating some suspicions by her movements, Ms. Zhao ran away just as authorities were doing a drug search. A customs agent, now charged with excessive force, grabbed Zhao, pepper-sprayed her, and roughed her up and badly bruised her face when she swung her arms at him in a struggle, according to US officials.
Now, shocking photos of Zhao with eyes swollen by the spray and panel talk shows featuring famous law professors on prime-time Chinese TV are playing here as part symbol, part stereotype of American aggressiveness. This comes after this spring's surfeit of images and other coverage here of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
Moreover, the Zhao story seems to be featured by state media in China just as relations between the two powers are slightly less sunny and a bit more testy over the question of Taiwan, and with less than enthusiastic Chinese support for the US occupation of Iraq, analysts say.
In recent years, the kind of reporting the Chinese get on the US is often colored by the state of relations - tense or relaxed - between the two countries.
The online version of People's Daily, an official mouthpiece of China, yesterday accused the US of having a double standard on human rights. The paper described the incident as an example of America's "hegemonic attitude and racial discrimination," and allowed a Zhao quote to the effect that "America is the most barbaric of all the countries I've visited." Combined with a similar comment about US weapons sales to Taiwan last week, it has not been since the EP-3 spy plane incident in 2001 that China state-run media has allowed common use of such language.
Whether by coincidence, a Chinese professional, Ms. Gao,one of several Beijing residents interviewed on the street here yesterday, professed great anger at the US, and also used the word "hegemonic" to describe US foreign policy.
"My impression of America is not worse because my impression has never been good. Americans are always like that," Gao said.
Even little-known newspapers from small cities in China have allowed reporters to phone Zhao's lawyer in New York with questions. Zhao will reportedly ask for some $5 million in punitive damages.
Until yesterday, Chinese media had not mentioned that the incident took place in the dark, at 11:15 at night, and have only sparingly allowed details of the case to emerge. One story editorialized that the "guard's excuse is unfounded," referring to testimony that he used force only after Zhao resisted.
Some media outlets yesterday did call for Chinese to keep their anger in check. The privately run "Beijing News" carried a commentary by a Beijing law student arguing that the US judicial system is set up to work on behalf of Zhao.
At a Beijing parking lot where several students under 20 were practicing hip-hop music, one young man who gave his name as Zhou said that he was very angry, that the incident reminded him of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and that how the "responsible officer is treated by the courts in the US will be important to the Chinese people."
The border guard, Robert Rhodes, has been charged with civil rights violations, and could face up to 10 years in prison.
One leading Chinese businesswoman who has lived in the US argues that "cultural differences" may have led to the beating.
"In the US, if you get out of a car when the police stop you, there may be trouble," says Li Yifei, the chief representative of Viacom China in Beijing. "In China if you don't get out of the car, the police will think you are impolite. These kinds of differences sometimes matter."