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A Habit of Distrust

Mutual Racism and Arrogance Undermine Ties

May 30, 1999|Maurice Meisner | Maurice Meisner, visiting professor at the London School of Economics, is author of "Mao's China and After: A History of the People's Republic."

LONDON — The furor over alleged Chinese spying at U.S. nuclear facilities, detailed in the Cox committee report, is only the latest in a long succession of ruptures in the relationship between China and the United States. What makes the congressional investigation interesting is not what it reveals about Chinese spying, which those familiar with such matters long assumed to be the case on both sides of the Pacific, but rather the apparent vulnerability of U.S. nuclear facilities. That, of course, is a U.S. problem, not a Sino-American one.

Nonetheless, the publicity the report has generated, and the bitter charges and countercharges sure to follow, will severely test the two countries' relationship. For it is already fragile, forged with great difficulty in the 1970s on the basis of little more than a mutual fear of the Soviet Union. The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 made the ties even more tenuous.

The deterioration of Sino-U.S. relations in recent years has been accompanied by a revival of old racial stereotypes. The relatively positive and human images of Chinese encouraged by President Richard M. Nixon's 1972 rapprochement with China, which then blossomed in the 1980s, have faded at an accelerating pace in the 1990s. With China no longer vital as a strategic partner in the post-Cold War era, U.S.-China relations have foundered over a host of real and manufactured issues: the future of Taiwan, trade imbalances, controversies over human rights, fears over deployment of Chinese ballistic missiles and murky tales of Chinese attempts to influence U.S. elections, as well as these current allegations about nuclear espionage.

From this ugly pottage--an indiscriminate mix of fact, fiction and conjecture--opportunistic American politicians now portray Chinese in stereotypical fashion. The increasingly dominant images are of 19th-century vintage: Chinese are crafty, deceitful, villainous and half-crazed automatons manipulated by evil rulers. It has become ever more difficult for Americans to see Chinese as fellow humans with genuine feelings about, say, matters of life and death. A recent case in point was the U.S. reaction to Chinese protests over the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade.

During the second week in May, Beijing witnessed the largest and most militant student demonstrations since the great democracy movement of 1989. But the 1999 marches were directed not against the Chinese Communist regime but rather the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Students and other citizens angrily, sometimes violently, protested the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. On May 7, three laser-guided missiles from a U.S. B-2 destroyed the embassy, killing three Chinese journalists and injuring 20 members of the diplomatic staff.

The anti-U.S. and anti-British demonstrations that erupted in China quickly spread from Beijing, where U.S. Ambassador James R. Sasser was besieged for three days, to at least a dozen other cities. Anti-American demonstrations broke out as well in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. All across Asia, including countries as politically distant from China as Japan and India, both official and popular opposition to the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia grew dramatically after the embassy bombing. But leaders of the West, proclaiming they are bravely waging a "humanitarian war," seem unaware of how isolated they have become in the world.

In China, the transformation of the image of the West, particularly the image of the United States, is striking, nowhere more so than among a new generation of students. In 1989, Chinese university students celebrated American-style democracy and idolized American popular culture. They erected a huge "goddess of democracy" in Tiananmen Square, modeled on the Statue of Liberty. Now, 10 years later, the celebrated "democracy plaza" in the center of Beijing University is plastered with hundreds of angry posters and letters written by students denouncing U.S. "neo-imperialism" and calling for boycotts of Coca-Cola and McDonald's.

The anger of students and other citizens was hardly appeased by the official NATO explanation, which attributed the bombing error to the CIA's reliance on an outdated 1992 map of Belgrade, made before the Chinese Embassy moved to its current building in 1996. The shortage of up-to-date maps, a former CIA director lamely suggested, was the result of budget cuts.

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