The Magazine

CHINA'S AGING ANXIOUS AUTOCRATS

May 24, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 34 • By AARON FRIEDBERG
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NATO'S BOMBING OF THE CHINESE EMBASSY in Belgrade was a tragic mistake. What came next was, as the Soviets used to say, no accident. In the days that followed, Beijing spared no effort in stirring up anti-American sentiment among its people. Government officials and the state-controlled media insisted, in the face of logic and evidence, that the U.S. attack had been deliberate. News of repeated American apologies and statements of regret was withheld for several days, and Chinese television viewers were bombarded instead with heart-wrenching images of the distraught father of one of the victims clutching his daughter's bloodstained bedspread and identifying her mangled body in a Yugoslav morgue.

When the first waves of angry student demonstrators laid siege to the American embassy in Beijing and to U.S. consulates in other major cities, they were only loosely restrained by police. Buildings were pelted with concrete blocks and Molotov cocktails. Fearing that the embassy was about to be overrun, U.S. ambassador James Sasser ordered his staff to make ready for the destruction of sensitive documents. Later, government buses brought in monks, pensioners, and workers to add variety and to keep up the steady flow of chanting protesters. Across the country, state agencies and other organizations were instructed to hold meetings and to issue statements of denunciation. At a ceremony honoring the dead as "revolutionary martyrs," President Jiang Zemin himself urged the world to defy Washington's bullying. Not since the Cultural Revolution has there been such an orchestrated outpouring of hostility towards the United States.

The Beijing regime's handling of the current crisis is, above all, a sign of its dubious legitimacy and potential fragility. With communism defunct in practice, if not in theory, China's rulers have come to rely on a blend of economic gains and assertive nationalism to rally popular support and justify their continued grip on power. Now that the Chinese economy shows signs of cooling off, increasing appeals to nationalist symbols and sentiments should come as no surprise. This may be one reason why, even before the Belgrade bombing, the official Chinese media were devoting such attention to events in Kosovo. The picture presented was, of course, entirely one-sided, with the United States and its allies in the role of the bully and Serbia portrayed as their weak and innocent victim. Fanning righteous anger against foreigners is one way to deflect domestic discontent. It is a technique that China's rulers have used in the past, and which they may use with greater frequency in the future.

The timing of this tragedy was especially fortuitous. With the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre fast approaching, the Beijing regime must have been nervous about possible commemorative demonstrations and renewed calls for "overturning the verdict of June 4" -- in other words, assigning blame to those who ordered and carried out the killings. Officially sanctioned outbursts against the West permitted students to blow off steam, while at the same time transforming the memory and meaning of earlier protests. Ten years ago students quoted Thomas Jefferson and built replicas of the Statue of Liberty. Today they denounce U.S. imperialism, carry American flags in which the stars have been replaced by swastikas, and promise (in the words of one poster) to "give up the poison of American-style fast food and cultural opium -- Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald's, KFC." Where the Tiananmen Square protesters seemed perilously close to embracing America and all things American, their younger brothers and sisters seem poised, for the moment at least, to reject them. This disillusionment can only be good news for China's aging, anxious autocrats.

Beijing has also been quick to exploit the possible foreign policy benefits of the U.S. bombing blunder. In the short run this has meant stepping up pressure on NATO to suspend its half-hearted war against the Serbs, while at the same time trying, along with Russia, to get in the middle of efforts to arrange a ceasefire. If the Chinese can use their newfound position on the moral high ground to help broker a peace settlement, they will have enhanced their standing as a major world power and a good international citizen. But Beijing also has a strong interest in seeing that NATO does not achieve its most important political objectives. However unlikely it now appears, a successful outcome to the war (with refugees returned, and Kosovo autonomous, if not independent) would bolster American prestige and set a precedent for outside intervention in "internal" conflicts. Given their concerns about Tibet, Taiwan, and their western provinces, the Chinese are very eager to avoid this.

China's rulers are past masters at the art of playing the victim. As suggested by their unwillingness to accept official American apologies, or even to take a phone call from a plaintive President Clinton, they can now be expected to use the accidental attack on their embassy to try to keep the United States off balance and attempt to gain the initiative on a number of fronts. Unfortunately, given their experience of the past six years, Chinese officials have good reason to think that, if they keep up the pressure, their American counterparts may fold. In the past few weeks, Beijing has had some success in getting the White House to move towards a reversal of its earlier decision not to back China's entry into the World Trade Organization. The Chinese have also mounted a major diplomatic offensive aimed at discouraging the United States and its Asian allies from developing a defense system to counter the expected deployment by the People's Liberation Army of hundreds of theater ballistic missiles. Finally, over the next few months, mounting evidence of espionage and Chinese diversion of dual-use technologies is likely to lead to calls for a reexamination of the Clinton administration's dangerously relaxed attitude toward export controls. China has ample reason to create a crisis atmosphere as a way of encouraging the administration to avoid further "provocations" and redouble its commitment to "engagement" and "strategic partnership."

Tactical considerations aside, the decision to stir up anti-American sentiment may reflect the beginnings of a deeper shift in strategic direction. China's leaders appear to recognize, even if ours for the moment do not, that there are some fundamental divergences between our interests and theirs. These differences cannot be smoothed over by soothing talk or ameliorated with still more trade. America's role as leader of a global coalition of advanced industrial nations and its attempts, however bumbling, to block aggression, promote democracy, slow the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and uphold some minimal standards of decent state behavior cannot help but be threatening to the Chinese regime. Conversely, China's efforts to enhance its military strength, reclaim Taiwan, and regain a position of preponderance in Asia really do pose a profound challenge to the United States.

Unless China changes, or the United States gives way before its rising power, Sino-American relations are likely to become more openly competitive in the years ahead. Beijing appears to be girding itself for such an eventuality. Americans should be thinking about how they will cope with it, instead of simply hoping that it does not come to pass.