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Thursday, 5 April, 2001, 10:41 GMT 11:41 UK
Spy plane row stokes Chinese passions
A Chinese man writes an anti-American banner outside the US embassy in Beijing
Anti-US sentiment is being expressed in Beijing
By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Beijing

The continuing stand-off between Washington and Beijing over the US spy plane is pumping up the anti-American rhetoric in China by the hour.

The temperature of the dispute is rising and nationalistic passions are being stoked.

A vendor with newspapers reporting the US-China crisis
"US should apologise" say the Chinese newspapers
On Chinese state-run television, the United States is accused of being arrogant and insensitive, words that are frighteningly similar to those thrown at the US after it bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade two years ago.

At news stands, almost every paper now has a picture of the US plane splashed across its front page, and the headlines are uniformly anti-American.

Here are a few examples:

  • The Global Times: Americans invade Chinese air space
  • The Beijing Morning Post: Chinese people condemn American hegemonism
  • The Yangshan Evening News: Wang Wei, where are you?

Wang Wei is the Chinese pilot, still missing somewhere in the South China Sea.

To the outside world, China appears to be making a mountain out of a mole-hill. The spy plane collision was, after all, pretty clearly an accident. Why blow it up into an increasingly dangerous diplomatic row?

'Ham-fisted response'

Susan Lawrence is the Beijing correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review.

She says Chinese anger has been stoked by the ham-fisted way President George W Bush and the new US administration has dealt with this crisis.

"I think that China has got really very irritated with the US for making the demands that it has made. They're very irritated that the US was so impatient to get access to the crew," she said.

"I think that offended sensibilities in China, because the Chinese pilot has been lost. China keeps saying that the US crew is safe. Our pilot's gone, show a little bit more compassion, please."

President Bush
President Bush: A lack of compassion?
In Beijing, there is deep suspicion of the new Bush administration's whole attitude towards China.

President Clinton called China a strategic partner. Now Beijing faces a US president who looks upon China as a rival, and some would say even an enemy.

Gau Hung, senior policy advisor to the Chinese Government, said: "After coming to power, Bush has been quite strident about changing US-China policy. He doesn't give the appearance of wanting a constructive partnership with China like President Clinton."

Arms sales

In his view, Washington is trying to step up pressure on Beijing.

"The Bush administration is stressing its relationship with Taiwan, including new arms sales to the island. America has military alliances with nearly all China's neighbours - Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines."

Military billboard in Haikou on Hainan Island
China is stoking up nationalist sentiments
China's president, Jiang Zemin, must also look to his domestic constituency.

In China, that does not mean the general public. Instead, it means the powerful factions within the Communist Party who wield real power from behind the scenes.

And the one group President Jiang cannot afford to alienate right now is China's military, according to Susan Lawrence.

"China's got a very major party congress coming up at the end of next year. Jiang Zemin is due to step down from his party posts and his state posts at that congress. We understand that he wants to hold onto one very key post, which is his chairmanship of the central military commission," she said.

"If he wants to do that, he can't been seen to be betraying the interests of the military ... the military have lost a pilot here. He's got to be seen to be standing up for the military's interests and not being soft towards the US on this."

Foreign humiliation

Every Chinese person is taught from a young age about China's humiliations at the hands of foreign powers.

Britain in the opium war, Japan in the Second World War.

Now, America is the dominant power in the world and China is determined to show it will not be pushed around again.

But ultimately it is not in China's interests to allow this dispute to develop into a major rupture with the US.

China has far too much to lose, from its huge trading relationship with America to its dispute over Taiwan and its hopes of hosting the 2008 Olympic Games.

Sometime soon, both sides are going to have to start looking for a way out.


Key stories:

Analysis

Spy plane row

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See also:

23 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
22 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
11 Oct 00 | Business
11 Oct 00 | Americas
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