Collateral Damage

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TERRY McCARTHY and JAIME A. FLORCRUZ BeijingAmbassador James Sasser knew real fear when his wife Mary told him over a mobile phone that a mob of Chinese students was smashing windows, pitching Molotov cocktails and apparently preparing to break into their Beijing residence. Sasser was half a mile away, trapped inside the U.S. embassy by a similar mob, unable to step outside the door without risking his life. That was the worst of it all, Sasser told TIME, not being able to get to my family. It was 3:30 on Sunday afternoon in Beijing, 34 hours after American bombs had wrecked the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Sasser tried calling his Beijing contacts but couldn't get anyone to pick up the phone. So he frantically placed a call to his counterpart in Washington, Li Zhaoxing. He pleaded with China's ambassador to the U.S. to contact officials in Beijing to provide more police guards. Awakened in the middle of the night, Li sleepily promised to do his best. Meanwhile, on the street outside the embassy, Wang Li, 21, knew real anger, holding a rock and joining with the mob chanting, Down with the Yankees! Incensed by the bombing, which he did not believe was an accident, the Beijing Union University student said the crowd had a right to vent our anger. The police made no attempt to stop Wang and the other protesters as they pelted the building with paving stones, eggs, tomatoes and bottles of ink.

So much for the vaunted strategic partnership between the U.S. and China. Less than a year ago, President Bill Clinton and President Jiang Zemin stood side by side in Beijing cordially airing their differences in a joint press conference. Last week Jiang refused to take Clinton's phone calls. Without question, says a senior U.S. diplomat in Washington, this marks the low point in relations since 1972, the year Richard Nixon visited China. When Madeleine Albright went to the Chinese embassy in Washington to offer her apologies, Ambassador Li kept her waiting in an anteroom for 20 minutes, then pointedly told her he had been busy receiving condolences from all over the world.

The death of the three Chinese journalists was a tragedy, but the protests that their government orchestrated seemed disproportionate. Spontaneous demonstrators were bused by the government to the embassy district, told where to march and given a selection of slogans to shout. As the protests got ugly, China squandered a lot of the sympathy it might have gained by a more measured response. For every person on the Hill whose image is of a burned-out embassy in Belgrade, said a White House official, there is at least one other person whose image is of a U.S. embassy under siege in Beijing.

Speculation grew that the high-pitched opera in Beijing was being staged as part of an internal political struggle. Chinese politicians vie for power like politicians anywhere else, but in a one-party state, much of the infighting is secretive and indirect. The two leaders who have linked their fortunes to improving relations with the U.S.--Jiang and his Premier, Zhu Rongji--kept their heads down during the week's protests. There is a whole cadre of other ambitious Chinese politicians hitching their careers to the proposition that America is an enemy, not an ally. Last week, at least, China's complex power balance seemed to tip their way. Zhu is under a lot of pressure now, said an associate of the reformist Premier's. He has been quiet all week--that's not a good sign.

Not that Washington hasn't countered Chinese hysteria with its own hard-knuckled attacks. For months lawmakers have assailed China on human rights, nuclear spying, campaign-fund violations and trade issues. At week's end the New York Times published a report that the Chinese were on the verge of deploying a new missile whose nuclear warhead design is based on stolen U.S. technology. But much of the anti-China rhetoric is partisan in nature, aimed at embarrassing the Clinton Administration. So poisonous is the mood on the Hill that few dare to voice the other side of the case: why it may be in the interest of the U.S. to engage, not alienate, China. When Zhu visited Washington last month with a list of concessions aimed at gaining China's entry into the World Trade Organization, Clinton took one glance over his shoulder at Congress and rebuffed him. Now that anti-American feeling is high in China, Zhu will have an even tougher time selling reform.

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Small steps to a big disaster

Ambassador Sasser experienced some tense moments as crowds assaulted his embassy in Beijing

In particular, the decision to not offer China WTO admission has hurt Zhu in a way that may haunt the White House. For the Chinese, WTO accession would mean easier trade with the rest of the world--a boost for their export-dependent economy. But Zhu took a risk by offering his concessions, which included more openness to U.S. agriculture products and telecom companies. He knew there was a good chance that Beijing hard-liners would argue they were too generous. When Clinton rejected his bid, hard-liners indeed hammered him with charges that he had given too much and got too little.

What really shocked policymakers in Washington last week--and expatriates in China--was just how deeply that anti-U.S. resentment had spread among ordinary people. The bombing became a trigger for a scary outburst. In Beijing foreigners were challenged to give their nationality (suddenly there were Irish and New Zealanders everywhere); in Guangzhou students rallied around the city's anti-imperialism monument eating Clinton cakes--bread buns decorated with swastika icing.

The government may have used the media to whip up the anger on the streets--outsiders saw it as a way of deflecting attention from next month's 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre--but it did not create that anger. Even academics familiar with the West assumed that in the Belgrade bombing the U.S. had made a deliberate decision to violate Chinese sovereignty. The U.S. needs an enemy in the world to solve problems in their own country, says Pan Wenguo, former head of international Chinese studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. Few see the bombing as a mistake that can be forgiven after a simple apology. We will have to wait for the new [U.S.] President before the situation will improve, says Zhang Yebai, an expert on Sino-U.S. relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Clinton's passage from honored guest last June to universal villain today has been abrupt. For a man given to feeling the pain of others, his initial damage control was not good. Touring tornado wreckage in Oklahoma the day after the bombing of the Chinese embassy, the President paused to offer his regrets and profound condolences but neglected to apologize. This was an insensitive lapse for the Chinese, who have rankled for decades because of Japanese politicians stretching syntax to avoid apologizing for their country's wartime aggression. With their prickly sense of national pride, the Chinese are quick to react to any perceived slight.

But the anger unleashed by the bombing had deeper roots, coming from a sense of resentment and impotence in China at the predominance of U.S. power in world affairs. On his way to the historic meeting with Mao in 1972, Nixon jotted down in his diary, What they want: 1. Build up their world credentials. 2. Taiwan. 3. Get U.S. out of Asia. A quarter-century later, China is still struggling with these goals, and the U.S. is the omnipresent bogeyman, criticizing China's political regime, providing military support to Taiwan and maintaining 80,000 troops in Japan and South Korea. Last week's demonstrators accepted as a given that the U.S. is dedicated to keeping China down. It is because China is not powerful enough, said a 21-year-old student from Peking University who gave her name as Wan. We must stand together to make China stronger.

Friend or foe? Unless both sides do some rapid repair work, says a White House official, there is a risk it will turn from a tragedy to a cancer on the relationship. As the protests subsided in Beijing, the government-run media kept up their angry rhetoric against the U.S., and television stations ran Korean War movies with heroic Chinese soldiers killing Americans, in place of the usual NBA broadcasts.

But China still needs the U.S. for its own economic and technological development, and will not want to keep relations in deep freeze for too long. Even as it suspended cooperation with Washington last week on human rights and arms control, two issues Beijing is uncomfortable with anyway, the government said it would continue negotiations on entry into the WTO.

By Wednesday, Wang Li, along with all the other demonstrators, had stopped picketing the embassy--he vowed to continue his protest by boycotting McDonald's--and Ambassador Sasser for the first time in four days was able to leave the battered building. But workmen were only beginning to clean up the broken glass, rocks and other debris. The embassy remained closed for business until further notice, and although Jiang finally accepted a call from Clinton on Friday, nobody could predict how long it would take the U.S. and China to climb out of the hole they have dug for themselves.

With reporting by Jay Branegan and Douglas Waller/Washington, Wendy Kan/Hong Kong, Isabella Ng/Guangzhou and Mia Turner/Beijing

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Small steps to a big disaster

Ambassador Sasser experienced some tense moments as crowds assaulted his embassy in Beijing