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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Amid Anger, China Hints at Diplomatic Solution

Controversy: Regime relays list of demands to ambassador in wake of bombing. Protesters continue to converge on U.S. Embassy in capital.

May 11, 1999|HENRY CHU and MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BEIJING — Thousands of protesters continued to march on the U.S. Embassy here Monday, but China tried to rein in public anger and for the first time held out the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Sino-U.S. ties caused by NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia.

In a list of demands made by telephone to U.S. Ambassador James R. Sasser, who remained trapped inside an embassy building, Beijing called for a formal apology, a thorough investigation and punishment for those responsible for the weekend attack.

The Communist regime also announced that it was suspending high-level military exchanges and human rights talks with the U.S., two key programs the White House has held up as proof of the success of its strategy of "engaging" China.

At the same time, however, Chinese officials tried to reassure jittery American companies that their investments and businesses would be protected from the anti-American backlash.

President Clinton already has written a letter of regret to Chinese President Jiang Zemin and expressed his condolences Sunday to the families of the three Chinese journalists killed in the airstrike. But those facts had not been reported in the media here until early today.

In Washington, the State Department disclosed that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited the Chinese Embassy early Sunday to personally deliver a letter of apology addressed to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan after Tang refused to talk to her on the telephone.

On Monday, Albright told reporters that on her midnight visit she "made very clear that I understood the sadness of losing innocent diplomats." But she said she added: "Ours was a tragic error; Milosevic targets innocent civilians on a regular basis or as a regular part of his policy."

In the letter, whose text was made public Monday, Albright repeatedly expressed regret for the embassy bombing. But she also told the Chinese authorities that they have an obligation "to ensure the safety of all Americans in China and protection of American properties."

A simple apology is not likely to appease people such as Li Fanghui, a graduate student who skipped class to join the protests in Beijing on Monday.

"You can't just call this 'a terrible mistake,' " said Li, 25, who read about Clinton's expression of regret on the Internet. "This isn't like kids fighting. It's not just a matter of saying 'Sorry.' "

He acknowledged that he had not fully thought out what kind of restitution the U.S. should make. But at the very least, those behind the bombing "should step down," Li said as he walked past a cardboard cutout of the Statue of Liberty shown clutching a missile instead of a torch.

Li was one of thousands who filed past the U.S. Embassy to express outrage in a constant stream of chants and banner-waving. Protests also continued Monday in other major Chinese cities, including Shanghai, where students rushed into a McDonald's and told customers to boycott the restaurant.

In addition to university students, the protesters in Beijing included Buddhist monks in their saffron robes, Roman Catholic nuns in their black habits and art students with metallic red hair.

But the demonstrators were significantly fewer and more controlled than the day before, when angry crowds, armed with rocks and bricks and burning paper, threatened at times to overwhelm police officers protecting the embassy buildings.

Sasser, the ambassador, said the weekend protests seemed to be getting so out of hand that he and other embassy staff began destroying sensitive documents. Early Monday morning, the situation had calmed enough for the ambassador to take a quick peek outside the building where he remained trapped with fewer than a dozen other personnel.

Throughout the day, protesters continued to hurl objects at regular intervals at the defaced building housing the embassy's main offices. Police stood in double or triple rows, arms locked, ready to repel any rush by demonstrators.

But the atmosphere was far less tense than the day before. Officers kept prodding the marchers along, preventing knots of people from forming and growing more violent.

Analysts said the central government, surprised by the vehemence of public reaction, has embarked on a clear campaign to rein in the protests that it seemed initially to encourage.

Most of those allowed to participate Monday were groups organized by student unions and work units and headed by leaders who tried to keep their groups in line. Some other residents who tried to join in were turned back by police.

On the national evening newscast, special focus was given to students who stayed on campus to express their anger.

"Students should show resistance by studying well and strengthening education. Workers should show resistance by working hard," the news reader exhorted. "This way China will develop to a level where no one would dare to cross China."

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