The Anger Runs Very Deep

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ZHANG XIAOBOEarlier this month a mammoth demonstration took place in the streets of Beijing. Students demonstrated day and night in front of the embassies of the U.S., Britain and other NATO countries, shouting anti-Western slogans. The popular view in the Western media is that the protests against NATO's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade were a nationalist movement supported and orchestrated by the Chinese government. But the characterization is quite off base, and will only lead Westerners into further misunderstanding of how the Chinese people think and feel.

In fact, for the Chinese government, 1999 is a year that has to be handled with circumspection. On the one hand, many social challenges--rising unemployment and criminality, ethnic strife--need to be managed. On the other hand, this year marks the 10th anniversary of the June 4 episode in Tiananmen and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. If anything goes wrong, China's hard-won stability may be upset. Although the Chinese government has insisted on the political settlement of the Kosovo issue and opposed military intervention, it has provided Yugoslavia with only moral support. It did not postpone or cancel Premier Zhu Rongji's visit to the U.S. even though NATO had launched its air raids against Yugoslavia. This shows that, at least at this point, the Chinese government was trying its best to establish a stable, long-term and constructive relationship with the U.S. and other major Western powers. It did not wish to see accidental factors cause a deterioration of such an uncertain relationship.

But the impact of the bombing of the Chinese embassy was quite horrifying. The demonstrations by students and city residents were unstoppable. The government did not dare stop them--nor could it. It knew quite well that any mishandling of a domestic issue could turn the situation into an international problem (the June 4 episode is an example) and any mishandling of an international issue could turn it into a domestic problem.

Unlike a decade ago, the Chinese government is now more mature in its tactics. It has deftly controlled the situation. During and after the demonstrations, it took protesters off the streets by ad-monishing the nation to protest [the] NATO bombing by doing your job well. Current Chinese leaders still believe Sino-U.S. ties--relations that are both important and challenging--are at the center of China's foreign policy. The real challenge is for the confirmed superpower and the nascent power to learn how to live with each other. The consequences of the bombing of the Chinese embassy on Sino-U.S. relations and the psychological damage inflicted on the Chinese populace, particularly intellectuals and students, will not be quickly addressed. If the U.S. fails to review its China policy immediately and to appease the anger of the Chinese people, China's 50th celebration may evolve into a gathering to denounce U.S. hegemony.

Zhang Xiaobo is co-author of China Can Say No, a 1996 book of essays warning of a U.S.-led plot to contain China


There is a voice in my head that keeps saying Get over it. And I know I should listen. As a correspondent in Beijing in 1989, I experienced the optimism of that spring's grand democracy movement. And I suffered through the aftermath of the leadership's decision to send troops to Tiananmen Square on June 4. Although to this day no one has the foggiest idea how many were killed (hundreds? thousands?), we witnessed--live--the slaughter of a spirit of hope and idealism. And yet this voice keeps insisting Get over it.

It is fashionable now to dismiss Tiananmen as a reckless, nihilist uprising. In that view, the crackdown was an unpleasant necessity to keep China from spinning into chaos. But that slant requires a selective recall. The movement was initially a peaceful call for reform. But Deng Xiaoping didn't get that. Soon after the demonstrations began, he ordered the People's Daily to tar the movement as a planned conspiracy and a riot, transforming China's idealistic young into enemies of the state. With that error, Deng lost the ability to compromise.

For many correspondents who lived in China at the time, Beijing is still a city of ghosts. When I am in the center of the city, I'm haunted by images of a dead soldier, his body burned by an angry mob and strung up from a footbridge. Am I the only one? At that spot now is a gleaming shopping mall. When I visit my old neighborhood, I think back to the terrifying scene three days after the massacre when a convoy of troops opened fire on foreigners' apartments. For months after Tiananmen, you could feel the indentations the tanks left in the asphalt of Changan Avenue. I still sense them, though they have long since been smoothed over.

The fact is, people in Beijing are no longer hung up on Tiananmen. Beneath the surface, it is easy to tap into the latent sense of outrage toward a government that could do such a thing and then refuse to apologize for it. And there are many in China still fighting the battle, struggling to bring about true democracy and a respect for individuals' rights. But most of China's citizens are contentedly focusing their energies on more pragmatic endeavors, like making money, learning English, studying computers, raising a family.

Outside China, people find it harder simply to move on. For the millions who were glued to CNN in 1989 during the weeks of hope and the night of horror, China is linked, perhaps forever, with the massacre. It is the toxin in the air that helps explain the passion of Beijing's critics in the West. The students who bombarded the American embassy in Beijing with rocks and eggs a few weeks ago have provided new images of China. But their exuberance was partly a response to years of China bashing. The bad blood, ultimately, can be traced to Tiananmen. At some point, to use Chinese terminology, the official view on Tiananmen will be reversed. Until then, riding an economy that has grown nearly fivefold since 1989, China's people are freer and richer than ever. Get over it, the voice says. But I can't.

Adi Ignatius is deputy editor of TIME Asia