Outraged masses still dancing with US devil

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 May, 1999, 12:00am

In 1948, when the United States backed the Nationalists in their civil war with the Communists, a US soldier in Beijing was accused of raping a student named Shen Chong at Beijing university.

It provoked a wave of protest among Chinese, enraged not only at the rape but also that the soldier returned home unpunished because the Nationalist government was too dependent on the US to arrest him. Ms Shen became a Buddhist nun.

The bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999, will join the rape of Ms Shen in Chinese folk memory of humiliations suffered at the hands of the US.

But while the masses may protest against such outrages, it remains the dream of millions of mainlanders to send their child to study at an American university, obtain a doctorate and passport, then land a high-paying job which posts them back to the mainland on expatriate terms. 'Give Chinese the choice of a million dollars or a Harvard doctorate for his son and they will all take the doctorate,' runs a popular saying.

This is the contradiction that Chinese feel for the US - Golden Mountain and Satanic Monster all rolled into one.

For the past week, the only image has been that of the Satanic Monster, the greedy superpower that sends pinpoint cruise missiles from distant warships at people and places it does not like and who are defenceless against them.

This theme was manifest in this week's protests outside the US Embassy in Beijing that left its windows broken, walls covered in red, blue and black paint and its forecourt strewn with stones.

One poster read: 'Korea, Vietnam, Haiti, Panama, Somalia, Iraq, Yugoslavia. What is the next US target?' Another read: 'Nato means North American Terrorist Organisation.' The attack was a propaganda windfall for the Communist Party, which has lost the public confidence and credibility it had at the time of Ms Shen's rape. With few believing any more in Marxism, Leninism or Mao Zedong thought, the party's legitimacy now rests on its ability to deliver economic growth and on its patriotism as the government of the Chinese nation.

Since news of the bombing reached Beijing in the early hours of last Saturday, mainland leaders have perfectly played the role of national patriots, dispatching a plane to bring back the dead and wounded and sending Vice-President Hu Jintao to meet them at Beijing airport.

The top three leaders - Jiang Zemin, Li Peng and Zhu Rongji - all went to the two buildings, where the ashes of the dead were laid and paid their respects to the three 'martyrs' and their families.

Official newspapers and television stations carried a barrage of anti-Nato and anti-American reports, with slogans repeated by demonstrators in front of the American and British embassies.

Government and public spoke with one voice, in a propaganda triumph rare in a country where people regard their rulers with suspicion and black humour and see the official media as a purveyor of party and government announcements, not news.

The demonstrations expressed the genuine anger and sorrow of the students but were meticulously organised by Beijing.

Officials had decided on Saturday morning, just hours after hearing the news of the bombing, that, however they presented the event, public anger would be so great that demonstrations of some kind would occur and that it would be politically wiser to organise them than to ban them.

The official media has reported extensively on the effect of the Nato bombing on Yugoslavia, especially the civilian casualties, but only to a limited extent on the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees, leaving many mainlanders unclear as to the reasons for the air campaign.

Beijing's biggest success has been to convince nearly all mainlanders, from academics to the person in the street, that the bombing was not, as President Bill Clinton and Nato have said many times, a tragic mistake but deliberate, in retaliation for China's support of Yugoslavia in the war, and as a warning not to oppose US hegemony.

'I believe the attack was deliberate not because I swallow the official version but because the US explanation is simply not credible,' said Mou Jianmin, the owner of a computer firm.

'The embassy was clearly marked with a flag and name plate, surrounded by grass, and was an independent building not close to military installations. It was on local maps.

'The attack has destroyed the good feelings I and many other Chinese had for the United States and especially President Clinton. We regarded the US as a modern, democratic country which protected human rights.

'The military methods it is using are like those of colonial powers 100 years ago, attacking countries it does not like. What is the point of the sophisticated non-military procedures we have developed since then, like the United Nations and diplomatic channels made possible by high-technology communications?' 'This kind of power politics sets a bad precedent. The US is strong now but will not be forever. When it is not, are the superpowers of the future to use the same methods against it?' he said. But Mr Mou too betrays the popular contradiction in attitudes to the US. With the money he has made from his business, he wants to send his son, 10, to study there.

'It has advanced science and education and good teachers and is the most powerful country. We should distinguish between the government and the people. I want my son to study there and come back to make China a stronger country than the US,' he said.

He is not alone. For the past 20 years, the rich and powerful in the mainland have sent their children to be educated in the US, to master English and learn the ways of the world's only superpower. Often they settle there, offering their family an escape route in case of trouble at home.

This reality will not change. The US will remain the most attractive country for study, investment and emigration despite the bombing. This is true both for the elite like Mr Mou and for poor farmers in Fujian and Guangdong, born and bred to believe the US is the 'Golden Mountain', and who pay tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled there, often ending up penniless in refugee camps in the Caribbean, Mexico, or Guam.

American companies in the mainland will remain popular with university graduates for their good wages and working conditions, the opportunity for travel outside the country, and the perception that they are more likely to promote local people than are European or Japanese joint ventures.

Nor will there be an end to the love affair of Chinese with so many US products, like McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Coca-Cola, Motorola mobile telephones, NBA basketball, and blockbuster films like Titanic and True Lies which far out-gross Chinese movies at the box office. There is no sign of a commercial boycott as a result of the bombing.

To offset this fever for American things, Beijing has become smarter in the propaganda war. Instead of anti-American Korean War films which appear wooden and unconvincing to the young generation, it has produced more subtle movies to present life in the US in an objective way.

The most recent, Bu Jian Bu San ('Don't Part Without Meeting'), a comedy full of sharp dialogue, has been the most popular mainland film this year. It describes the life of two Beijing people in Los Angeles.

The man lives in a caravan and makes a living from odd jobs. The woman starts as a maid and overcomes misfortunes to open a flower shop that prospers. She buys a car and looks to be settling down. The two gradually fall for each other and, when the father of the man dies in Beijing, they take the plane home to look after his mother.

The moral is that you can make it in the US but only with skills, hard work and good luck, that life there is not as simple and comfortable as it appears in American soap operas on mainland television and that you can do better in your own country.

'Chinese understand better the reality of life in the US than 10 years ago,' said a Beijing professor, who criticised American aggression.

'Then everyone wanted to go. Now they realise that they have to be well-prepared and must be trained in physics or computers or something marketable there. With an arts or humanities degree, what chance do you have? At the same time, there are more opportunities at home.' Wang Aiguo, a business consultant, studied in California in the 1980s and returned earlier this year after two months there.

'About one third of the people, especially the women, were overweight and many could not see their feet. I saw few women like those on Baywatch. Maybe the producers have to use foreigners,' he said.

'I saw 17-year-old girls riding in open-top Mercedes sport cars. The people I know in China can never in their whole lives earn enough to buy such a car and here teenage girls receive them free from their parents. It was simply too unjust. The people there have no idea of the difficulties Chinese face.

'I found California a place with no history and little culture. Life in Beijing is more inconvenient and polluted but it is my own place,' he added.