China Trade Report, July 1999 Volume 37

Forbidden City



Ever since the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May, leading China watchers have been analyzing various anti-reform factions who are said to be stepping up there attacks against President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji for their economic reform policies and too cosy ties with the United States.

    One leading China expert in Hong Kong says: “a coalition of neo-Maoist cadres, conservative parliamentarians and army hawks has demanded that Mr. Jiang revise his ‘pro-America diplomacy,’ even at the expense of economic benefits that can be derived from improved trading and other links with the United States.”

    The expert says moderate and conservative factions are preparing to clash over economic and foreign policy at the forthcoming annual leadership meeting int he seaside resort of Beidaihe.

    What’s been glaringly missing from this discussion, however, is the growing grassroots dissatisfaction with the Jiang-Zhu leadership.

    Much of this stems from the Communist Party’s own camping to fan the flames of Chinese nationalism for its own purposes.

    However, as China’s leaders are well aware, nationalism can be a double-edged sword that could be turned against the party.

    Public anger almost got out of control following the Nato bombing, a cause of concern in the halls of Zhongnanhai. What worries the party most is the growing feeling among ordinary citizens that government has been too weak in its response to the bombing and other pressures from the U.S. To some extent, the government can only blame itself fro the current mood.

    While China’s citizens have a fascination with the United States, resentment of America’s “anti-China” policy has been growing over the past few years, a sentiment that has been encouraged by constant media reports of what are described as U.S. attempts to contain China.

    The Chinese are becoming increasingly unhappy with American policy towards China. America blocked China’s attempt to host the Olympics and obstructed its entry to the World Trade Organization. The there was U.S. criticism of the China’s human-rights record, intervention in the dispute with Taiwan, allegations of espionage and buying political influence and finally the bombing of the embassy. It’s no wonder that the Chinese surveyed in a poll several years ago said that U.S. was the country most unfriendly to China.

    The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia—believed by many in China to have been a deliberate attack by Nato to test the mettle of the country—may be the breaking point.

    “For 45 days prior to the the embassy bombing, the Chinese media pounded away at the Nato attacks against Yugoslavia, giving Chinese people the impression that we were a major player in the international conflict,” says a Chinese journalist. “When the people see that the government is now powerless to do anything in the wake of the bombing, dissatisfaction can only grow stronger.”

    The incident has already resulted in nostalgia for the days of the late Chairman Mao Zedong, seen by many as the last Chinese leader to stand up to the West.

    “If Mao were alive,  he would already have sent troops to [help] Yugoslavia, just as we helped the North Koreans beat the U.S. Army,” the Los Angeles Times quoted one Chinese as saying.

    As unlikely as this scenario may seem, such sentiments are not uncommon, as proven by chat lines on the Internet, where a hot debate has been raging among the Chinese since mid-May.

    In the tradition of imperial China, one daring Chinese used the Internet to write an e-mail “memorial” to Jiang, criticizing the government’s “very weak reaction” to the embassy bombing. The writer likened the country’s situation today to the final years of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), when a weakened China was being carved up by foreign powers.

    Jiang and Zhu, the two leaders most closely associated with the policy of opening to the world and closer ties with the U.S., are thus walking a tightrope.

    They realize that the Sino-U.S. relationship is too important to both countries to be allowed to deteriorate, and they are keen to resolve the crisis in relations. However, their hands will be tied to a certain extent—at least over the short-run by—by the growing public perception that the government is too weak in responding to slights from the West.

    This can be seen in the harsh rhetoric that continues to fill the pages of leading Chinese newspapers, more than a month after the embassy attack in Belgrade.

    Stanley Rosen, a sinologist at USC, wrote recently in a paper that the problem with playing on nationalist sentiment is that the government has put the populace in the position of judging whether the party is fullilling its promise of making China strong, and of taking action if the people think it has failed.

    “If the regime is unable to meet such rather high expectations, it may find, to use an old Chinese expression, that in playing the nationalism card, it has ‘mounted a tiger and can’t easily dismount,’” says Rosen.