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Bombings, Blood Debts, and Mutual Suspicion

by Ryan Dunch on May 26, 1999

The events of May 1999 may mark a decisive turning point toward mutual suspicion and hostility in the relationship between China and the United States, with perilous implications for the twenty-first century.

“A blood debt must be repaid with blood!” This Chinese proverb with its blunt logic of retribution rang out from student demonstrators across China as they vented their outrage against NATO following the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7.

Ten years ago the same proverb was emblazoned on gates and banners in Hong Kong, with quite a different target — the Chinese government, for its bloody suppression of the democracy protests led by another generation of Chinese students.

Then, as now, the demonstrations were massive, impassioned and brimming with patriotic anger. In Hong Kong in June of that unforgettable year, on some days the number of marchers approached a million people, a staggering one-fifth of the total population of the colony. The walls and barred doors of the New China News Agency were plastered with placards and petitions of protest. Like the U.S. embassy in Beijing after the bombing, it was unable to open for days due to the vehemence of the protests.

Same slogan, different targets. Why? In brief, because the Chinese government has since 1989 carefully promoted a sense that China is under subtle threat from hostile international forces, and that patriotism means defending the Chinese government from these forces. In both cases the policies and proclamations of Western powers have provided the Chinese state-run media with an abundance of material to work with.

The sense of international threat emerged soon after the crushing of the democracy movement on June 4, 1989. The authoritative People’s Daily published a lengthy analysis in July 1989 explaining how the “anti-communist forces” of the capitalist world, led by the U.S. government, were engaged in a coordinated effort to undermine world socialism through peaceful means.

Specifically, the article linked the Voice of America, which had been a news source of choice for the Tiananmen demonstrators, to this capitalist conspiracy, thus transforming the students with their demands for democracy into naive dupes of the hostile forces of global capitalism.

Events of the latter half of 1989 made this view look positively prophetic. One after another, most of the world’s Communist governments collapsed, in an eerie reversal of the Cold War’s “domino theory.” Then in 1991 the first and greatest of the Communist powers, the Soviet Union, astonishingly annulled itself. The eagerness of leaders in the self-styled “Free World” to claim credit for the “victory” of course lent credence to the Chinese government’s conspiratorial view.

The Chinese government’s efforts to redefine patriotism to mean support for the regime also began soon after the 1989 crackdown. The Tiananmen demonstrators had demanded democracy in the name of patriotism, claiming its mantle through hunger strikes, petitions, and ultimately martyrdom. By contrast, the logic of the new patriotism ran like this: China is socialist, socialism is threatened by a worldwide capitalist conspiracy; therefore patriotism means defending socialist China against outside pressures.

The result of these efforts has been the creation of a climate of suspicion in which any dispute with the United States can easily appear to be part of an American-led attempt to weaken China and its socialist system. The Clinton years have provided a multitude of such disputes, from the relatively tangible — intellectual property rights, say, or arms proliferation — to others viewed by the Chinese as entirely lacking in justification — human rights complaints, televised slights of Chinese athletes, the U.S. double standard on greenhouse gas emissions, politically charged allegations of Chinese espionage and influence-peddling. In such an international climate, the Chinese people have been encouraged to value firmness above all else, to value a “China that can say, No!” as one Beijing bestseller put it.

And now this debacle in Belgrade, killing three Chinese citizens and injuring 25. In the circumstances it is hardly surprising that Chinese leaders have declined to accept publicly that this attack was nothing more sinister than an intelligence error, albeit a tragic one. Certainly the demonstrators who mobbed the U.S. consulates in China were not convinced by NATO’s apologies and explanations. And the government no doubt secretly welcomed the chance to provide an external focus for popular discontent as the tenth anniversary of Tiananmen approaches.

Of course, a similar climate of suspicion towards China prevails on the U.S. side. With the release this week of the Congressional report on Chinese espionage the relationship between the two powers looks set to plummet to its lowest point since Nixon’s historic China trip in 1972.

What both sides must remember is that the pragmatic recognition of common interests overriding great differences remains the only viable basis for the US-China relationship. As Nixon himself put it in 1972, “While we cannot close the gulf between us, we can try to bridge it so that we may be able to talk across it.” Twenty-seven years later, the gulf remains wide and the bridge all too fragile, at both ends — barely strong enough to talk across, and certainly too flimsy for blood debts!

Ryan Dunch teaches modern Chinese history at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and writes for the History News Service. He lived in Hong Kong from 1987 to 1989.