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Unintended consequences

Editorial, Asia Times, 19 May 1999

We used to admire America, once a colony, now the world's greatest economic and military power, said a Xinhua news agency quotation of a student at Beijing University - China's elite university whose students were in the forefront of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. But, the quoted remark continued, the U.S. missiles that destroyed the embassy in Belgrade are the essence of American freedom, democracy, and human rights. And that 'democracy' belongs to the privileged class, while 'freedom' is related to hegemony, and 'human rights' are only for American citizens.

They're going to hit us hard, warned James Lilley, the former U.S. envoy to Beijing. They're going to use this the way we've used Tiananmen.

Lilley was right: Chinese protesters, whether in China or abroad, whether spontaneously or with government instigation, hit back hard at American barbarism; damage to America's image in China will not be easily repaired, nor will the damage to Sino-U.S. relations.

Less noted and apparently of lesser concern to Western media are some of the China-internal consequences of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia. They are not, on that account, of lesser significance than the international diplomatic row.

What went up in flames along with the embassy building and plenty of Uncle Sam effigies was a good deal of the good will toward America and respect for its values that had developed in China over the years. And compared with the carping of old-style communists, those losses are potentially a whole lot more dangerous for long-term U.S.-China relations, for the political fortunes of the reformers associated with close U.S.-China ties and for their market liberalization and political reform program.

For several tense days as anti-American demonstrations raged throughout China, top leaders fitting that description - President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji, and Vice-Premier Qian Qichen - disappeared from public view and the state-run media, giving rise to speculation about internal leadership rifts in the Communist Party. Adding to such speculation were reports that protesters in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province and home to major People's Liberation Army-controlled industries, had paraded through the city denouncing traitors.

President Clinton's original half-hearted May 10 apology to China (since then followed by a formal letter) encouraged Jiang and Zhu to show their faces again and laid to rest the more alarmist rumors of a power struggle. But what the two had to say when they re-emerged after several days of silence was nonetheless telling.

'China will continue to unswervingly adhere to the policy of reform and opening up, which is the only way to invigorate the country, Jiang said in a May 13 speech, adding that the nation must turn the indignation over NATO's barbaric act and its patriotic enthusiasm into power to improve constantly China's economic, defensive and national strength, which will guarantee China's invincible status.

Zhu, for his part, said: Historical experience and the baptism of war have told us to profoundly hold the interests of our motherland and the interests of the people above all else. . . . A country can avoid insults only by strengthening itself and can only effectively safeguard peace by building up comprehensive strength. We must convert sorrow to strength and cherish even more the overall situation of stability and development.

A fair summary of their combined messages: Don't even think of using this incident as a pretext for questioning economic reforms and our present course.

The great majority of Chinese leaders and most of the U.S. political elite, whether now in power or waiting on the sidelines, know that the U.S.-China relationship ultimately is too important for either side to permit it to be decisively jeopardized by the Belgrade incident. And - in that regard, happily perhaps - Russia is not now and will not in the foreseeable future be a partner China (or the U.S.) could turn to to forge new alliances.

Still, there is an important lesson in all this: Ill-advised policies such as the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia can have unintended consequences and put at risk vastly more important global objectives. Collateral damage may signify unintentional death and injury not only to innocent civilians but to world-strategic policy goals.