May 11, 1999

May 11, 1999 | Commentary on Asia

ED051199:  Beijing Hardliners Gain Stronger Hand as China's WTO Hopes to Go Up in Smoke

Hopes for China's quick entry into the World Trade Organization, or for it to achieve permanent "Normal Trade Relations" status, are going up in the smoke of China's pulverized Belgrade Embassy -- and the US Consul General's now burned-out residence in Chengdu.

On Sunday morning, two U.S. Senators who normally are quite sympathetic to China, Joe Lieberman (D-CN) and John McCain (R-NM), charged the Chinese government with orchestrating the attacks on the U.S. and British Embassies in Beijing, and on their consulates throughout China. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) pointed to other festering boils bedeviling US-China relations these days -- espionage, human rights, campaign finance, satellite technology.


Meanwhile, Chinese leaders, the Chinese media, and thousands of demonstrating students charged the U.S. with deliberately targeting their embassy in Belgrade for destruction.


Even the normally sanguine Ambassador James Sasser sounded harassed and bleary-eyed in his day-long series of telephone interviews from his besieged U.S. Embassy in Beijing early Sunday night and Monday morning. Sasser, five staffers and about eight U.S. Marine Security Guards finished their second day sweeping glass from third floor office floors.


In Chengdu, Sasser said Chinese police finally stopped attackers against the consulate just as they were breaking down the code-room vault with a battering ram.


Spiraling Out of Control


On ABC's "This Week in Washington," Chinese Ambassador Li Zhaoxing berated Sam Donaldson for not bothering to express concern for, or even ask about, the well-being of China's diplomats in Belgrade, before he demanded to know whether the Chinese government would guarantee the safety of U.S. personnel in China.


President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin are letting things spiral out of control.


While the White House scrambled to assure Beijing that the Belgrade bombing was just a horrible accident, Ambassador Sasser was telling CNN there was evidence the Chinese government had planned the retaliatory attacks on U.S. installations in China.


At the same time, Clinton's own congressional democrats were already staking out the hard line on China. Along with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Senator Joe Lieberman, Senator Tom Kerry (D-KS) blasted China's espionage efforts on yesterday's "Meet the Press."


The fragile coalition that the Clinton Administration seemed gradually to be building up in Congress following what it thought were successful trade negotiations with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji was in tatters after Friday evening's destruction of the Chinese embassy.


In Beijing, the surly acquiescence of China's powerful state-enterprises to Premier Zhu's concessions in Washington turned to outright opposition as top Chinese economic officials leaked stories of cabinet-level mutinies against making further concessions to the Americans.


Anti-Diplomatic Violence


Hardliners in China's Politburo now call the shots. Who else could have given the go-ahead for the vandalism of the U.S. offices in China? Both CNN and Public Broadcasting Corp. ran news items Sunday describing how hundreds of demonstrators were brought to Beijing's diplomatic quarter in busses, a sure sign that the demonstrations were organized by the police.


On Sunday, Chinese vice president Hu Jintao made a nationally-televised speech assuring the demonstrators that "the Chinese government firmly supports and protects, in accordance with the law, all legal protest activities," the first such speech by a Chinese leader in recent memory.


Of course, even Vice President Hu, in the same speech, cautioned against "overreaction." This left no doubt in Washington that someone in the Chinese government gave the go-ahead to the diplomatic and consular destruction in China, and that neither President Jiang nor Premier Zhu had the power or the energy to stop it.


Both Clinton and Jiang may hope that the latest round of anti-diplomatic violence in China, and China-bashing in Washington will have a cathartic effect -- that with one great burst, we'll get it out of our systems. But the problem is that rhetoric is exceedingly difficult to control. It is certainly out of control in Washington, and
will probably get worse as the pictures of the ruined diplomatic compounds appear on the front pages of America's Monday morning papers, and as images of last summer's obliteration of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi are recalled.


Long Memory


Rhetoric is also out of control in China. Hardliners in the state enterprises are tired of being pushed around by American trade negotiators; hardliners in the People's Liberation Army are tired of U.S. protection of Taiwan; the Chinese police are just plain tired of the U.S.A.; the propaganda departments are tired of communist ideology always being on the defensive; and the Chinese newspapers, who lost a correspondent in the Belgrade attacks, are now genuinely angry at the United States. There is no patience anymore for putting up with the U.S. President Jiang and Premier Zhu, who both have counseled moderation and accommodation, are increasingly isolated and out-voted in the Politburo.


Things are unraveling in Beijing


After the dust settles around China's bombed-out Belgrade embassy, and as the smoke clears from the smoldering consulates in China, perhaps reason and compassion will return.

Perhaps both Beijing and Washington can restart efforts to move China's World Trade Organization membership ahead.

Perhaps. But both Americans and Chinese have a long memory for these kinds of things.


John J. Tkacik, Jr., is president of China Business Intelligence, an Alexandria, Virginia, consulting firm. He is also a Research Fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Originally appeared in China Online.