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Loss of Airman Stokes Hainan's Anger at U.S.

April 09, 2001|CHING-CHING NI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAIKOU, China — Hainan island is billed as the Hawaii of China. But for the American diplomats who have arrived in this port city since a U.S. spy plane made an emergency landing on the island eight days ago, the interior of the five-star Hainan Mandarin has been virtually the only scenery on view.

Occasionally, these officials venture out to a nearby general store, shopping for such items as contact lens solution, playing cards and cotton swabs to bring to the plane's 24 stranded crew members, who are being held at a military base about a 20-minute drive away.

On Sunday, the Americans repeated their request to be granted daily meetings with the crew, whom they have so far been permitted to see three times. But no additional visit was granted, putting a damper on hopes that a quick resolution to the U.S.-China standoff was in sight.

Had U.S. officials ventured farther afield, however, and spoken to some of the island's residents, they might have better appreciated the emotions bolstering Beijing's refusal to allow the crew members to go home.

Over the weekend, many on Hainan expressed outrage at the continued refusal by Washington to apologize for the midair collision April 1 between the U.S. aircraft and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet that was monitoring it. They were particularly upset by what they see as the United States' obsession with the 21 men and three women aboard the surveillance plane and its apparent nonchalance about the Chinese pilot, who is still missing and presumed dead. State-run media stoked their anger by focusing on the plight of the airman, Wang Wei, and of his wife and 6-year-old son, nicknamed Luo Luo.

"Wang Wei is a very nice man. He subscribes to a computer journal and comes here all the time to pick up the paper. And their son, Luo Luo, is very adorable," Huang Yueling, a postal worker near the air base where the Wang family lives, told the local Hainan Daily.

Another islander, Xu Zhaonong, said he met Wang Wei only recently and Wang told him that the presence of American surveillance planes so close to Chinese turf was outrageous and that his job was to protect the motherland at any cost.

In Lingshui, at the southern end of the island, about three hours' drive from the hotel, many local fishermen have abandoned their normal work to join the search for this new national hero. More than 800 fishing vessels have been combing the South China Sea, below where Wang ejected after his jet collided with the American EP-3.

Emotions remained high Sunday even among squatters beneath derelict buildings in Haikou as they sat eating dinner in the tropical heat.

"If we were still living under the Mao era, we would be at war by now," said Liao Chuanwen, a migrant worker from Hubei province. "We went to war in Korea in 1950 even though new China had been established less than a year."

Liao's fellow villager, Wan Fangwen, said he wished that President Jiang Zemin would act more aggressively toward what Wan sees as American bullies. But he also voiced concern about the consequences of a real armed conflict.

"If we went to war, China's economy would be set back at least 10 years," said Wan, a peasant who came to Haikou nine years ago when construction jobs were so plentiful that entire villages from his area moved here to work. Today, he and other villagers shack up in the bowels of a pile of concrete skeletons that were supposed to become a shiny 28-floor office tower.

In fact, there look to be as many abandoned skyscrapers as giant palm trees dotting the waterfront development zone around the Hainan Mandarin. The area was supposed to become the island's Wall Street. But with its boom years gone bust, Haikou might well prefer to duck the spotlight that has put it in the center of a dispute between two powerful adversaries.

In another abandoned building, Luo Yunfei, a peasant from Shanxi province, was also skeptical about the benefits of war.

"America is a paper tiger, just like Mao said," Luo said. "There is nothing to fear. They have to apologize. But a war would hurt everyone."

Pride and rhetoric aside, most residents of Hainan seem more interested in their economic prospects than in Cold War politics.

Situated at the southernmost tip of the Chinese empire, the island is the second largest off China after Taiwan. Historically, its distance from the political nerve center made it a dumping ground for criminals, pirates and disgraced officials.

Talent and money poured in from around the country in the 1980s. The island had a chance to play the poster child of China's economic miracle, becoming the country's newest province and its biggest special economic zone, able to rival the prosperity of Taiwan. But the bubble burst in the mid-1990s, partly because of crackdowns on rampant corruption and speculation.

Investors fled, and confidence in the economy dwindled. But now this remote outpost is no longer in danger of slipping back into obscurity or falling back on old stereotypes--as the home of sandy beaches and coconut candies and the backdrop for the revolutionary movie and ballet "The Red Detachment of Women."

"It's too bad that this incident didn't happen when we were a booming economic zone," Liao said. "It's always bad news that gets people's attention."

That attitude, however, doesn't appear to have lessened resolve that America must be punished before its detained military personnel can leave.

"I don't think they'll get to go home soon," Wan said. "We have to get to the bottom of this first."

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