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Tuesday, May 4, 1999 Published at 18:05 GMT 19:05 UK

Beijing backing Belgrade

US blockbusters replaced by Yugoslav war films in Beijing's cinemas

By Duncan Hewitt in Beijing

The posters outside one of Beijing's main cinemas have a strangely old fashioned look these days: gone are the hi-tech promotions, complete with piles of real sandbags used recently to publicise Saving Private Ryan; square-jawed communist heroes are the order of the day now.

Kosovo: Special Report
The manager, Mr Xu, said that by popular demand, the Capital Cinema has been running a festival of Yugoslav war films from the Tito era - many depicting heroism in the face of Nazi attacks.

Old people emerging from Valter, Defender of Sarajevo were moved to tears. One had seen the film three times. "Why are they starting the killing all over again," asked another.

Historical memories are being revived - films dating back to the 1970s when China embraced Tito's Yugoslavia have been dusted down as Beijing hails his successors as heroes in a new cold war.

[ image: Nato compared to Nazi]
Nato compared to Nazi
And there's no doubt who the bad guys are. One newspaper aimed at China's intellectuals pointed out that the words "Nato" and "Nazi" are similar in spelling, "and the behaviour of the former is becoming more and more like the behaviour of the latter".

It's a theme echoed elsewhere. Last month, a day before China's Prime Minister Zhu Rongji set off for America, seeking to cement a new friendship, one popular Chinese magazine printed a front cover picture of Bill Clinton complete with Hitler moustache, while its sister paper published letters from students praising Slobodan Milosevic as a hero.

It can all make for a bewildering experience - to flick from Western media, available via satellite, to domestic Chinese television channels is to see two different wars, virtual mirror images.

[ image: Chinese television view KLA as terrorists]
Chinese television view KLA as terrorists
In one the focus is on Albanian refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing - but there's another where the victims are all Yugoslavian civilians, the Kosovo Liberation Army are terrorists intent on undermining a benevolent government, and the Albanians are fleeing only from Nato attacks.

And this is concerted coverage - Chinese television, not renowned for detailed foreign reporting, is pulling out all the stops - Beijing's good relations with Belgrade mean easy access for Chinese TV reporters to file outraged stories from the rubble of buildings apparently hit by Nato attacks.

A war with no reason

It's provoked a strong public reaction - from calls offering money to the Yugoslavian embassy, to paintings by schoolchildren depicting the suffering of victims of Nato air strikes.

When the Beijing football team's Yugoslavian star player appeared in a T-shirt saying "Stop Nato", the crowd went wild. Students are even reported to have threatened to boycott their beloved McDonalds, while one man offered to sell a friend his computer for a bargain price - if she wore a T-shirt with a target printed on it for a week.

[ image: Nato's action has revived old fears of the West]
Nato's action has revived old fears of the West
To many people here, Nato's behaviour is completely baffling. In the Chinese media this is a war with no apparent reason.

All reference to ethnic cleansing has been avoided - even in the normally more open publications available only to government officials.

China's foreign ministry spokesman has looked distinctly awkward when questioned on the subject. "It's hard to prove," he said. What we do know is Yugoslav civilians have died, and the refugees started to leave after the bombs began.

Fear of the west

Yet Western politicians say they have lectured China on the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Beijing may simply be avoiding the subject out of solidarity with an old communist ally, but there's a deeper reason too.

For many in China, especially the older generation, what's happening has revived old fears about the West, in particular the US, and its motives.

Phrases rarely heard since the cold war are in vogue again - hegemony, gunboat diplomacy, world policeman. "The Americans always act for their own economic advantage," said a man in the visa queue outside the US embassy in Beijing.

And China's deep-rooted concerns about support for independence in Tibet, Taiwan and its Muslim northwest have added to the anxiety. To the leaders in Beijing, especially in the more conservative military establishment, Nato is setting a dangerous precedent by intervening in a sovereign state in support of people seeking autonomy or independence.

It's fuelling deep-seated suspicions about US intentions towards Taiwan - at a time when China says reunification with the island is becoming a top priority.

One normally mild-mannered academic told me in perfect English: "The West disagrees with China over a whole range of issues, how do we know Nato won't decide to bomb us one day if it's not happy with what we're doing inside our borders."

The power of the media

[ image: Kosovo - not a topic on Prime Minister Zhu visit to the US]
Kosovo - not a topic on Prime Minister Zhu visit to the US
Of course China continues to talk to America. Prime Minister Zhu barely mentioned Kosovo while he was there. Maybe this doesn't foreshadow a serious hardening of China's attitudes to the West; perhaps the film seasons will simply end, and the Serbian folk songs disappear from the airwaves.

But observing recent developments has provided a sobering reminder of the power of the media to shape opinion - on all sides; and at the same time a reminder too that many people in China remain apparently impervious to the promptings of the official media.

"Could it be that there's some ethnic problem in Kosovo we haven't heard about", an earnest young man in a railway station asked me?

One English-speaking woman was blunter. "They should have sent in ground troops at the beginning to sort it out, and then got out fast," she said.

One man seemed to represent the extreme fringes of heresy. "Maybe Nato should take action against China," he said, "then we could start all over again."

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