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Sunday, 8 April, 2001, 15:45 GMT 16:45 UK
A Cold War in paradise
Fisherman off Hainan island, China
There is more to Hainan than military technology
By the BBC's Matt Frei in Hainan

Hainan Island is an unlikely place for a Cold War hostage spy drama.

Caressed by the tropical sun, this is pure Club Med, a Chinese Hawaii.

The airport in Haikou was bristling, not with soldiers, but package tourists from Beijing and Shanghai, wearing pink baseball hats.

There were no marooned spy planes on this tarmac, but a fleet of Hainan airline jets decorated with palm trees.

Even the customary secret service at the airport were friendly and accommodating. I almost expected to be handed a welcome drink.

On the golden beaches, Chinese men and women were sunbathing.

Then jets screamed over my head, one every minute for about an hour.

The jets were a reminder that Hainan Island is also the naval nerve centre of China's underbelly.

From here the southern fleet sails forth to assert Chinese control over the South China Sea.

Relaxed reaction

On the beach I approached a group of young men.

They looked like soldiers on a break.

A poster of former President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Hainan, China
China has noticed a change in style since the Clinton team left office
"What do you think of the spy plane incident?", I ventured in my terrible Mandarin.

They shrugged their shoulders and looked at each other. I resorted to charades and circled them with arms extended like wings.

They giggled and must have though that I was insane.

I am not sure whether this relaxed attitude to the biggest diplomatic crisis in the new millennium is representative.

In Beijing the students have apparently been desperate to demonstrate, the internet chatrooms have been humming with jingoistic vitriol: "Down with America, kill, kill, kill" was one suggestion of how the American crew should be dealt with.

Laid bare

What struck me are both the similarities and differences between China and America, laid bare by this crisis.


Did President Bush senior really preside over the end of the Cold War only to have his son dust it off from the attic of history?

The heroic pictures of the dashing martyr, Wang Wei, paraded on state television, they reminded me of old-style communist posters.

Then there was the starched woman interviewer asking the surviving pilot, Yu Zhao, who was to blame for the accident, clearly a leading question.

He turned to the camera, gestured angrily, and rattled off an accusation against reckless American flying.

Yellow ribbons

Meanwhile, in Dakota, where many of the crew and their families are based, they were tying yellow ribbons round old oak trees before the word "hostage," had even been uttered by the most hawkish senators.

George W Bush
Is George W Bush rekindling the Cold War?
In these dramas everyone seems to know the script and the roles have long been cast. What an irony.

Did President Bush senior really preside over the end of the Cold War only to have his son dust it off from the attic of history? No, that would be unfair.

Considering the emotions that bubble underneath the surface and the mutual suspicions between the world's only remaining superpower and its next aspiring one, the two leaders did remarkably well in restraining emotions.

Jiang Zemin ordered even the loneliest demonstrators to be dragged off the streets.

After the Belgrade embassy bombing, the Chinese authorities bussed them in their thousands to besiege the US ambassador.


This incident has shattered the cosy ambiguity of Clinton's policy of engagement towards Beijing

In Washington, President Bush junior may not have oozed Clintonesque poetry, but he did his best to feel the pain of the lost Chinese pilot.

His terse economic delivery, I think, rather suited the stand-off: firm, without being inflammatory.

So much for the delivery.

Friend or foe?

But the whole crisis has exposed one rather alarming fact which is that the West, and especially America, doesn't know whether China is a friend or a foe.

This incident has shattered the cosy ambiguity of Clinton's policy of engagement towards Beijing.

In purely pragmatic terms, these countries have many common interests, especially in one field - the economy.


We the Chinese have been humiliated by outsiders for such a long time and now America wants to keep China small

Chinese chef
China's accession to the World Trade Organisation may provide a much needed boost for America's lumbering economy.

While the Nasdaq has nose-dived, the Shanghai stockmarket has surged upwards.

But if money and commerce were the only other issue, most of us journalists could go home.

What makes China's attitude to the West so complex is history. Chinese friends never stop telling me that their country has four, or was it four and a half thousand years of continuous history.

Wang Wei
Missing Pilot Wang Wei
I am not sure exactly what that means beyond the fact that the middle kingdom has a very long memory.

"Don't you see?," Mr Ong said as he was chopping up a braised duck at the Double Happiness restaurant in Hong Kong, with unusual vigour.

"We the Chinese have been humiliated by outsiders for such a long time and now America wants to keep China small."

This week that was an opinion I heard from a cook and from a professor of political science.

So clearly it has some support from a broad spectrum of society, and it is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed.

And just imagine if the reverse had happened - a Chinese spy plane flying off the coast of Florida causing the crash of a US F-18 and the death of an American pilot.


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