Chinese Embassy bombing exposes raw historical nerve
May 12, 1999
BEIJING (CNN) -- As China mourned its dead from the accidental NATO bombing of its embassy in Yugoslavia, China's state media continued to condemn the attack Wednesday in words that reflected the country's historical resentment toward the West.
Vice President Hu Jintao met the jet carrying the remains of three journalists -- two men and a woman. Their remains and the most seriously wounded survivors were flown from Belgrade to Beijing on Wednesday, and the procession to and from the airport brought out more anger against NATO and the United States.
NATO said faulty intelligence led to pilots attacking the building, believing it to be a Yugoslav military supply office. NATO leaders' repeated apologies for the bombing were not published in Chinese newspapers until Tuesday.
Chinese news reports had called the strike a premeditated war crime, and demonstrators besieged the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for four days.
The intensity of those demonstrations illustrated how the days of Western intervention in China during the colonial era are sorely remembered by many Chinese.
"It's the same old story," one student demonstrator said. "When hegemonist powers unite to bully China, it's always the same. They are afraid of China and want to keep us down."
Chinese state media stoked public outrage by drawing parallels between the embassy attack and the "gunboat diplomacy" of the 19th and early 20th centuries. A commentary in the People's Daily warned NATO countries, "This is 1999, not 1899."
"U.S.-led NATO must understand that the wheels of history cannot turn back," the Communist Party newspaper said.
The list of Chinese historical grievances is a long one, including the seizures of Hong Kong and Macau by Britain and Portugal; Britain's Opium Wars of the 1840s; the sacking of the emperor's residence in Beijing by European troops in the 1860s; and the draconian suppression of the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion in 1900 by U.S. and British-led troops.
Anti-Western movements sprang up in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Communist Revolution that created the People's Republic of China in 1949 promised an end to international humiliations.
Communist leader Mao Tes-tung declared "The Chinese people have stood up." And while China, the United States and European allies fought side-by-side against Japan in World War II, Chinese troops fought bitter battles against U.S.-led soldiers in the 1950-53 Korean War.
China's inflamed national pride has touched some Western expatriates in a more-than-figurative manner in recent days. Many Westerners who braved the crowds during demonstrations were jostled and screamed at by angry mobs.
Others, particularly Americans, kept a low profile. Some U.S. nationals in China describe taxi drivers demanding double fares, marketplace vendors cursing at them or students lecturing them on the evils of U.S. President Bill Clinton.
The U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory for Americans. Several U.S. businesses have closed their offices this week, and some cultural events -- including concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and blues musician Robert Cray -- have been postponed or canceled.
But not all Chinese have been hostile, and at least one American in Beijing says tempers have eased.
"I still get dirty looks, but there's a difference in the vibe today," said David Janowitz, a graphic design artist from New York.
Some of China's historical insularity has faded, and the People's Republic considers its integration with the world economy a key priority. But hostility to outsiders may remain part of China's politics for some time.
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