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China: NATO Bombing Of Belgrade Embassy Seen As 'Defining Moment'

  • Ben Partridge

London, 24 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A British authority on China says that last month's NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade -- in which three Chinese journalists were killed -- was a "defining moment" in Beijing's relations with the West, particularly with the U.S.

Michael Yahuda -- professor of international relations at the London School of Economics -- spoke in London last night on the theme "China and the West: After the Belgrade Bombing."

Yahuda said most Chinese seem convinced that the bombing -- which NATO says was a mistake -- was deliberate, seeing it in historical context as yet another Western humiliation for China.

He said he believes the incident was indeed a blunder, preferring what he called the "cock-up theory of history" -- the idea that governments and bureaucracies always get things wrong -- to any conspiracy theory.

China's Belgrade embassy was hit on the night of May 7 by satellite-guided bombs from a U.S. B-2 bomber. Twenty people were injured.

Immediately after the bombing, angry crowds besieged the U.S. embassy in Beijing in what the American ambassador dismissed as just a "flap." But Yahuda said it was more serious than that:

"In many respects, this was a defining moment, much more than just a flap. Some argue that this was perhaps something like Beijing opera, in which there is a lot of noise and much clashing of cymbals, and it doesn't signify very much. And after a decent, or indecent, interval, somehow things will be back to normal. But I think this episode, which is still not over, tells us something much more."

Yahuda noted that students threw stones at the U.S. embassy and chanted "Kill Americans." Politicians spoke of China's "common hatred for the enemy," a reference to U.S.-led NATO. Yahuda called the language emanating from Beijing "gross and absurd."

So why did the Belgrade bombing set off such strong emotions in China? Yahuda believes the Chinese share a perception that for 150 years their country was humiliated by the West, and also by Japan, something that has become something of a national myth. Like all myths, it contains a lot of truth but also serves the purposes of the Chinese party leadership.

"In the Chinese case, there is this view that here was this great wonderful place that one sunny day, through no fault of its own, was somehow invaded by the West, and humiliated and dragged through the mud for 150 years or so, until the People's Republic was established. To this day, it's still struggling to have the proper recognition of equal treatment by other great powers. And, indeed, because of this past humiliation, this country has an entitlement from outsiders, from those who produced this humiliation."

Yahuda said the reaction of the Chinese was also linked with their aspirations to be a great power and to be treated on an equal footing with the U.S. Significantly, after the bombing, Beijing sought an apology and an explanation, not from NATO, but from U.S. officials.

The American reaction was one of embarrassment and surprise that the Chinese side found it so difficult to accept that -- in Yahuda's words -- "things can go wrong in war, that NATO did not mean to bomb their embassy."

Yahuda said the Chinese people compare themselves with Americans, seeing China as a great nation with 5,000 years of history and an unmatched contribution to world culture. But they also perceive the U.S. as a hegemonistic power, dominating a unipolar world. In particular, many Chinese regard the U.S. as the main hurdle to unification of the mainland with Taiwan. There is a perception, Yahuda said, that "America is keeping China down. The Chinese," he explained, "see themselves as a rising power, as entitled to greatness and, in that sense, America is an obstacle."

Partly because of this, China regarded the U.S.-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia as the worst thing to happen since World War Two, a reaction that may have been influenced by the fact that its views were apparently not taken into account when the air strikes began.

Before the Belgrade bombing, diplomats from Muslim nations told Beijing that its view of events in Kosovo was excessively one-sided and underestimated the importance of the Serb repression of the Muslim ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo. Significantly, after the embassy bombing, Beijing failed to secure backing from a number of Muslim countries which in the past were, Yahuda said, "only too happy to echo Chinese chastisement of the West."

Yahuda said China's ambivalence toward the U.S -- fearing it while also needing it -- presents it with a major difficulty. In order to achieve great-power status, China needs to modernize and, to do this, it needs to deal with the West, particularly the U.S.

The U.S. is already the market for one-third of China's exports -- while China accounts for only two percent of U.S. exports. The Americans also are the dominant voice in the world's financial institutions, and on the whole, in Yahuda's words, have treated "the Chinese side fairly well."

China's late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, argued that Beijing should be very careful not to antagonize the U.S. (Deng famously said, in a reference to British rule in Hong Kong, "Go soft on the Americans and hard on the British.") But Yahuda said there is no one now with Deng's authority emphasizing the need for caution.

The U.S. -- and the West in general -- face a dilemma in how to respond to China's show of anger. Pointing out that no Western leader has objected to the strong language from Beijing, Yahuda said the West seems "prepared time and time again to overlook all sorts of things they would not accept from another great power."