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STANDOFF ENDS

Words May Be Enough to Soothe Feelings

Reaction: U.S. statement could provide cover for Communist leadership, but some Chinese remain angry.

April 12, 2001|CHING-CHING NI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAIKOU, China — It wasn't a deep enough kowtow. But Washington's message of regret provided enough face-saving room for most Chinese to accept their government's decision to let the 24 crew members of a crippled American spy plane go home.

The 11-day standoff and sudden breakthrough, however, rekindled resentment of perceived American arrogance, especially here on Hainan island, where the U.S. plane made an emergency landing after its collision with a Chinese fighter jet that almost certainly killed the Chinese pilot.

It also made China look weak to some of its own citizens.

Shortly after the announcement of the impending release during the evening news Wednesday, an angry crowd gathered in the rain outside the military guest house where the Americans were being detained. The crowd chanted slogans and raised placards that read "Down With American Hegemony." But the protest was quickly quieted by plainclothes police, who otherwise let the crowd vent its outrage at the tone of Washington's message.

"What they wrote is like a love letter; you can say whatever you want, but you don't have to mean it," said 27-year-old Zhou Jun, a former soldier. "We need Bush to come here and apologize to us face to face."

"If they meant what they said, they should have said it a long time ago," another man shouted from the crowd.

While the wording of the U.S. message is meant to pacify domestic hard-liners and lead the public to believe that an apology was indeed given, Chinese analysts said Beijing had backed down, letting the Americans off the hook without a full and formal apology. Even though China still wants to hold the U.S. responsible, it had to compromise to avoid letting the crisis escalate beyond the Easter weekend and do more damage to U.S.-China relations.

"China realized that the later the crew is released, the worse the impact will be," said Shen Dingli, a defense expert at Fudan University in Shanghai. "There's also a perception problem of China in the U.S. But because China has treated the crew in a nice way and not kept them for good, even without a U.S. apology, China's image in the U.S. is better than the U.S. image in China at this time."

Shen blamed Adm. Dennis Blair, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, for suggesting early on that the Chinese plane must have caused the collision.

"He raised the stakes in the dispute. He said China must be responsible. And then China said, 'No, it's the [United States'] fault.' The mutually accusing approach is not desirable. The right approach is analyzing an issue on basic facts," Shen said.

Most Chinese tempered their dissatisfaction. They did not rally in the streets the way they did after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, two years ago.

"U.S. and China are like friends. One of them stepped on the other's foot. They should say, 'Sorry.' It's not necessary to treat each other as enemies," said Lu Guoqiang, a film producer in Beijing.

The reaction around the country was partly influenced by the Chinese media's moderate tone. A more nationalistic approach could have undermined the authority of the leadership, which is on the eve of a power transfer.

But that doesn't mean Beijing completely averted a public relations problem with its own people. Even among those who agreed with the decision to send the Americans home, there was a perception that the Chinese government appeared weak.

"Our government should have been much tougher. We let them go way too easily," said Fang Jia, 22, an unemployed college graduate in a Haikou Internet cafe.

"Talk is cheap. We need to see some real compensation to [missing pilot] Wang Wei's family and the Chinese people," said Lin Caimei, who was checking her e-mail.

Many Chinese said they missed Mao Tse-tung's charisma and his willingness to stand up to foreigners.

"If Mao were alive, he would lead us to fight the Americans," said Zhou, the former soldier. "If they started a war now, I would be the first one to sign up!"

It was much quieter on the campus of Hainan University, where authorities turned down students' request to protest last week. Tempers flared during the evening newscast, but life went on after the soap operas came on.

"You can't get too emotional about this," said Dian Xiaowu, who was barely able to tear himself away from his TV show.

"I was shocked they let them go so soon," said Zhang Guoyu, 22, a tourism management student who was practicing modern dance to loud pop music. "Letting them go does not necessarily mean we backed down."

Law student Aixinjuluo Guo disagreed. He is the grandson of a soldier who fought in the liberation of Hainan island during the Chinese civil war, and the son of a medic in the People's Liberation Army.

"If I were a pilot, I would shoot the Americans down," he said. "If they don't value our lives, then they deserve to die."

The government is counting on the nuances of language to mollify domestic critics.

"They'll feel it's not enough, but they'll feel they got something," said analyst Yan Xuetong, director of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations at Qinghua University in Beijing. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "said they're very sorry. The responsibility is very clear. It definitely means you've done something that was not good. You have responsibility for the mistake."

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