JAIME A. FLORCRUZ BeijingDressed casually in slacks and a polo shirt, a relieved U.S. Ambassador James Sasser gazes at the debris-strewn driveway of his residence in central Beijing. We're glad all this is behind us, he sighs. No one really anticipated the depth of the anger of the Chinese people about this terrible tragedy. Certainly not the Sassers. On the morning of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the American envoy, his wife Mary and grown son Gray had planned to take some houseguests from Texas around Beijing. Then the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned Sasser to discuss the bombing. He had barely finished drafting his report to Washington on that meeting when hundreds of angry protesters started gathering in front of the chancery. Most were students who had heard about the bombing on Chinese television. They shouted anti-American slogans and pelted the embassy with rocks and bottles of ink. Crowds cheered when the windows were hit.
Nothing in Sasser's experience had prepared him for this unexpected turn of events. Unlike many of his predecessors, the former Senator from Tennessee is neither a Sinologist nor a career diplomat. But he has proven himself effective in an emergency. Soon after he took up his post in 1996, Sasser faced a diplomatic crisis: Taiwan was holding its first presidential elections and, in an apparent attempt to intimidate pro-independence proponents on the island, Beijing conducted military exercises and lobbed missiles across the Taiwan Strait. When Washington sent two aircraft carriers to the area, Sino-American relations dipped several notches.
Since then Sasser, 62, has worked hard to rebuild ties. His close links with the White House--he is a longtime friend of Vice President Al Gore--and his experience on Capitol Hill gained him easy access to the corridors of power in Washington. This clout earned him the respect of China's top officials and helped him build personal rapport with many of them. His efforts paid off when presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton exchanged state visits in 1997 and last June.
By Saturday, May 8, however, Sasser's diplomatic efforts seemed to be coming undone as mobs laid siege to the embassy. Marooned there with more than a dozen staff, including eight Marine guards, the envoy kept himself busy securing the building. The Marines were stationed at the front windows. One was in a bathroom stall where he could see the protesters coming down the street. We slept on the floor, the ambassador says. We ate Marine combat rations.
On Sunday, the violence escalated as the thin Chinese police line started to buckle and hotheads among the protesters lobbed Molotov cocktails. One went through a broken window and fell into a closet. The Marines put out the fire. Says Sasser: I was afraid the embassy would go up like a tinderbox.
One block down the road, Sasser's family and houseguests were trapped in his virtually unprotected residence. Protesters got around the police cordon and rained the house with rocks and firebombs. Each stone that came through hit me personally, says Mary. I thought of all we had done in the three-and-a-half years here. Initially, they hid in one corner of the second floor; then, fearing that the Molotov cocktails could start a fire that would trap them, they moved to a safer room downstairs.
During a lull at dawn on Monday, Mary, Gray and their four guests, taking cues from Chinese police, sneaked out of the house and into two taxis, one to ferry the visitors to the airport and another to take the Sassers to a hotel. Says Gray: It was not the introduction to China that we wanted to give our friends. The Sassers say the worst part was worrying over each others' safety. Says Gray: When we heard rumors that some documents were being shredded [inside the chancery], we thought it was serious stuff.
Sasser, who will soon leave Beijing--retired Admiral Joseph Prueher was named last week to replace him--says he bears no grudges. We can understand their feelings of anguish and grief, he says. When Premier Zhu Rongji went to America last month, he said he was going there to allow Americans to vent their anger. We're a symbol of America here, so I guess the Chinese vent their anger at me. The ambassador says he remains optimistic that there is a deep reservoir of friendliness for the U.S. among Chinese.
With reporting by Mia Turner/Beijing
Anger over the bombing of Beijing's embassy in Belgrade knocks the other leg from under wobbly Sino-U.S. relations
Small steps to a big disaster