SCMP Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Beijing has thinking to do in face of American jingoism

The release of the 24 American aircrew by the Chinese after an 11-day impasse is a great relief for us in Hong Kong, not to mention for the two sides involved. This is not the end of the incident of course. The US plane is still being held and both sides still have to reach a consensus on what actually happened and where responsibility should lie.
Some kind of understanding has to be reached over US surveillance activities along the Chinese coast and how the mainland responds to them, in order to avoid similar incidents in future. But it is difficult to be optimistic that this can be easily achieved, given the present political atmosphere on both sides.
This writer had the fortune of being in the US right after the incident occurred, travelling along the east coast listening to radio talk shows, reading US newspapers and watching television news as events unfolded. If what I heard and saw truly represents the attitude of the American public, media, and political establishment towards Sino-US relations, then there is good cause for concern. At a time when the world is entering the era of a global economy, this problem is not simply a bilateral one, but also has regional and global connotations.
In an incident like this, people generally worry about hardliners in Beijing and how they can benefit from such an incident and drag it out to the detriment of the many common interests that the US and China share. But if you are in the US, the first thing you worry about is the influence of the right wing. This whole episode has been played in America to the tune of the rightists on the US political scene, be they among the public, media, or political establishment.
A lack of understanding of China, and of Sino-US relations, is the least of the problem. Nationalism, chauvinism, outright bias and distortions were - almost without exception - the rule in the many public discussions on this issue which I came across over the past two weeks.
It even gave the impression that the Olympics is an American event and it is for the America alone to decide who is going to host the 2008 Games, and that trade with China is actually a charity and American imports of Chinese goods is like buying a charity sticker on a Saturday morning in Central.
All the attention focused on the belief that the US had done nothing wrong and that 24 innocent Americans had been held against their will. The closest to a balanced view was a segment on NBC television, asking Americans what their reactions would be if the tables were turned and a similar incident had occurred off the Californian coast. When the news about the return of the spy-plane crew was announced, the predominant question in the American media was: "Did we win or lose?" - almost as if it was an NBA game of the week.
Sensationalism is part of the game, particularly when human beings are involved. National bias is unavoidable when national interest and honour are at stake. This is understandable. But rational discussion of national policy is also needed and this seems to be critically lacking in a society which champions openness and diversity. Yet I saw little sign of either during the past two weeks in the US.
The saga is continuing now the crew is home. There is no more restraint on China bashing and the coming weeks will be a field day for the rightists, with Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld supplying the ammunition. This is the atmosphere under which the new US administration is going to formulate its China policy.
While realism and pragmatism will win in the end, one cannot be optimistic about Sino-US relations in the near future.
One has to understand the current incident is but a side show in a larger US policy towards Taiwan. And national unification is the number one item on the agenda for China. A cooling-off period for Beijing following its 20-year romance with the US might not be a bad thing for China as long as a certain level of normal relations can be maintained.
US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage reportedly said that "China will have to make a decision about what kind of relations it wants with the US". This is advice from America that China should seriously contemplate.
Shiu Sin-por is executive director of the One Country, Two Systems Research Institute.