• U.S.

Views Across A Wide Gulf: The Anger Runs Very Deep

3 minute read
Zhang Xiaobo

Earlier this month a mammoth demonstration took place in the streets of Beijing. Students demonstrated day and night in front of the embassies of the U.S., Britain and other NATO countries, shouting anti-Western slogans. The popular view in the Western media is that the protests against NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade were a nationalist movement “supported and orchestrated by the Chinese government.” But the characterization is quite off base, and will only lead Westerners into further misunderstanding of how the Chinese people think and feel.

In fact, for the Chinese government, 1999 is a year that has to be handled with circumspection. On the one hand, many social challenges–rising unemployment and criminality, ethnic strife–need to be managed. On the other hand, this year marks the 10th anniversary of the June 4 episode in Tiananmen and the 50th anniniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. If anything goes wrong, China’s hard-won stability may be upset. Although the Chinese government has insisted on the political settlement of the Kosovo issue and opposed military intervention, it has provided Yugoslavia with only moral support. It did not postpone or cancel Premier Zhu Rongji’s visit to the U.S. even though NATO had launched its air raids against Yugoslavia. This shows that, at least at this point, the Chinese government was trying its best to establish a stable, long-term and constructive relationship with the U.S. and other major Western powers. It did not wish to see accidental factors cause a deterioration of such an uncertain relationship.

But the impact of the bombing of the Chinese embassy was quite horrifying. The demonstrations by students and city residents were unstoppable. The government did not dare stop them–nor could it. It knew quite well that any mishandling of a domestic issue could turn the situation into an international problem (the June 4 episode is an example) and any mishandling of an international issue could turn it into a domestic problem.

Unlike a decade ago, the Chinese government is now more mature in its tactics. It has deftly controlled the situation. During and after the demonstrations, it took protesters off the streets by admonishing the nation to “protest [the] NATO bombing by doing your job well.” Current Chinese leaders still believe Sino-U.S. ties–relations that are both important and challenging–are at the center of China’s foreign policy. The real challenge is for the confirmed superpower and the nascent power to learn how to live with each other. The consequences of the bombing of the Chinese embassy on Sino-U.S. relations and the psychological damage inflicted on the Chinese populace, particularly intellectuals and students, will not be quickly addressed. If the U.S. fails to review its China policy immediately and to appease the anger of the Chinese people, China’s 50th celebration may evolve into a gathering to denounce U.S. hegemony.

Zhang Xiaobo is co-author of China Can Say No, a 1996 book of essays warning of a U.S.-led plot to contain China

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