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10-Year Anniversary

May 9th, 2009

aToday is the 10-year anniversary of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. 

On a flight to China the week that it went down, I remember the events that followed the incident well. The mood in Beijing was different the day I arrived. No one would said anything about what had just happened. Having missed the news because I was in transit, I remember picking up a phone to call a friend, a Beijinger whom I expected would want to meet for lunch, or at least a drink.

Instead, I got the cold shoulder and was told she was busy.

“Busy with what?” I asked.

“Demonstrations,” she said, sounding as if I should know precisely what she was talking about.

I opened the television in my hotel room later and caught images of the Chinese setting fire to the US Consulate in West China. Chinese were busy demonstrating in many corners, and it was said that buses to demonstration points had been organized by the government. Contrasted with the previous summer — the one where Bill Clinton came through and was declared a hero for flinging open wider the doors of trade with China — the summer of 1999 was a strange one.

While in Beijing, I asked as many Chinese as I could whether they believed the bombing was done intentionally, or by accident (as the U.S. was claiming). Absolutely everyone I met that year insisted that it had been done on purpose, and the looks I got when trying to raise the specter of doubt were precious and particularly memorable. The uniformity of public opinion in China is a fascinating phenomenon, by the way, one that I referenced in my book, Poorly Made in China

Ten years on, has anything changed? How’s the mood in Beijing these days? 

People’s Daily ran a special article today that deserves a close look. Now, while it is generally understood that the paper is a tool for propaganda, some of their articles are more carefully crafted than others. This one (below) looks as though time has been invested, and it has the feel of a piece from the Cold War. I’m reprinting most of the article here, adding comments in bold along the way: 

On the night of May 7, 1999, local time for Belgrade, (the early morning of May 8 in Beijing), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), headed by the US, brazenly used missiles to attack China’s embassy in Belgrade, leading to the death of three Chinese reporters and severe damage of embassy houses. This was a barbaric scene in human history. ["This was a barbaric scene in human history." In other words, this was no accident.] 

Ten years later, US media has selectively forgotten this event, and re-examinations by US authorities are rare. “Mistaken Bombing” is the final explanation and attitude of the US. [The U.S. might have forgotten, but we won't!]. 

A member of the US president China-focused advisory group said that China has already risen 10 years after the event, and the relations between China and the US have been stable and developed a good momentum. The “Mistaken Bombing” has become a blip in history. Experts on China’s military issues believe however, that over the past 10 years, it is just because China has made such tremendous and sincere efforts that the cooperation between China and the US has expanded rather than stagnated. Taking into account that this event is a page already turned in history, the alertness and latent hostility that the US holds towards China seems not to have vanished. The best example to prove this issue is with the results from the monitoring of US troop ships in Chinese seas over the past two months. [It is only because China has tried hard that U.S.-China relations are on solid ground -- but, somehow, the U.S. remains hostile.] 

Before and after May 7 every year, wreaths and garlands that were laid by the entire staff of the Chinese Embassy in Serbia, local Chinese organizations, Siberian non-governmental organizations and individuals can be seen in front of the Chinese embassy that was bombed. On noon of May 7 2009, people set up a monument in front of the bombed embassy. Wei Jinghua, the Chinese ambassador to the Republic of Serbia and Dragan Ailas, Mayor of Belgrade, unveiled and laid flowers by the monument. It is engraved with words in both Chinese and Serbian: “Hereby, thanks for the support and friendship that the People’s Republic of China has given to the People of the Republic of Serbia during one of their toughest moments. This monument is established to mourn after the victims”. A local municipal official who attended this activity said that the international community manipulated by the US did not make the appropriate response nor conduct in-depth investigations to the embassy bombing. [Serbia thanks China for its support? If the bombing was intentional, there's part of the motive right there. Analysts who say the bombing was intentional believe that China was lending support by holding a cache of weapons in the building that was attacked.]  

Global Times reporters learned that as early as February this year, supporters of China in Serbia including the rector of the University of Belgrade, the president of the Serbia-China Friendship Association and the dean of the Confucius Institute had jointly wrote a letter to the city government of Belgrade. They proposed to put up memorial tablets for three martyrs—Shao Yunhuan, Xu Xinghu and Zhu Ying. At 12 pm sharp on March 24, the entire nation of Serbia sounded the alarm to mourn for the victims of the NATO bombing 10 years ago. It also reminded people that Serbia will not forget this part of history. [In order to build our credibility, here are the names of others who support us on the point...] 

NATO issued a statement after its barbarous bombing of the Chinese Embassy, stating that it feels regret for any injuries caused to the Chinese Embassy and China’s diplomats. The US and NATO apologized by saying that intelligence officials used out-of-date maps although the Chinese Embassy’s building stands out in Belgrade. This bombing might further complicate the West’s efforts to ensure a resolution through diplomatic means of disputes over Kosovo, and cause tension in China-US relations. The New York Times reported on May 9, 1999 that, “People in Belgrade said that it was difficult to confuse the Chinese Embassy with the intended target. The Chinese Embassy is a marble structure with blue mirrored glass and flies the Chinese flag, while [the intended target] is housed in a white office building” and has a longer history. [I've traveled to Belgrade, the picture at the top of this blog post is actually my own. I also find it hard to believe that one building might be confused for another -- but that's looking at the buildings from street level.] 

The US also meditated on its own errors after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy. Cohen, the then Defense Secretary, announced that existing maps of American defense works, as well as intelligence records, would be upgraded so as to accurately reflect the precise coordinates of foreign embassies and other locations of interest. The Boston Globe reported on April 12, 2000, that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) punished seven employees responsible for the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The Washington Post reported on April 11 the same year that the CIA had made investigations and imposed related punishment’s in connection with the previous year’s bombing of the Chinese embassy. White House officials had consistently insisted that the bombing was an accident which had resulted from a series of errors incurred as a result of the use of outdated maps. They had planned to bomb a Federal Republic of Yugoslavia weapons procurement department, but the bombs actually hit the Chinese Embassy several hundred yards away. After the South China Sea incident in March this year in which Chinese and US vessels engaged in a confrontation, a report by the Los Angeles Times mentioned the embassy bombing and related killing of three Chinese reporters when listing the military and diplomatic frictions between China and the US by quoting Reuters news. The report stated that US President Clinton and other US officials had expressed apologies for this tragic mistake and an angry China had delayed the talks for its accession into the WTO by three months. [This is a standard tactic used in China business: Point to problems with members of the other side's team as a means of dividing their ranks. It's a page from Sunzi's "The Art of War."] 

The NATO allies stood in line with the US on the embassy bombing event. An executive of Thales Group, a major French defensive product manufacturer, once told reporters that there would not be any country in the world that would have done such things to China intentionally, and even the US had to think out what consequences it might face if it resorted to forces against a country with a whole series of nuclear arms and veto power in the UN Security Council. [And the other guys like us, if you won't...] 

Kenneth Lieberthal, former China advisor to the Obama campaign, said that many historical events were often mentioned at recent seminars organized by Washington think tanks, including the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and the US, the tenth anniversary of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and others. For instance, the tenth anniversary of the Chinese Embassy bombing was mentioned in a seminar made to Chinese youth held by the US Brookings Institution at the end of April. He thinks that the views on the “mistaken bombing” have already taken root in the US, the persons responsible for the “mistaken bombing” have already passed away, and the embassy bombing has been gradually forgotten in the US. Ten years later, China has risen up, China-US bilateral ties have stabilized, the general situation is changing for the better, and the “mistaken bombing” has already become a moment in history. [We will never, ever forget not to forget -- ever!] 

China’s military expert Dai Xu said the US would certainly not say it bombed the embassy “on purpose,” but everyone in the US and China understands what happened. 10 years after this historic event, the “embassy bombing” page has been turned over, but the US clearly needs to address the nature of the problem. It is still engaged in provoking China’s sovereignty, as shown by the recent activities of the US surveillance ship in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea. It could be said that the US has a causal association with the embassy bombing and plane collision incidents years ago, which demonstrates the country’s precautionary mentality and potential hostility. Dai said such mentality and hostility will not disappear with the turning of this page. The US and China have engaged in extensive cooperation over the past decade, which is based on the great sincerity China has shown. The development of relations relies heavily on both sides making an effort. The US should learn from its lessons and refrain from provoking other nations’ sovereignty. [Oh, my god. Are we still talking about whether the bombing was intentional?] 

During interviews, some Chinese experts believe that objectively, the bombing of the Chinese embassy offered China an opportunity to reflect and transform. On the one hand, the general public has realized that economic construction is the basis on which the enhancement of the overall national strength rests. On the other hand, a strong belief has formed among the general public that only strong military power and an advanced national defense system can fundamentally protect and safeguard the results of economic construction. [In other words, we are still upset about the bombing, but gotta make da money! China's strategy is to build out its economy first. What's to come later? That's a very good question (and one that I touch upon, as well).] 

One of the most interesting things about the bombing in Belgrade is, of course, how such a supposedly emotional issue can be put out of mind for so long and then get brought out as though it were just-baked fresh.

Note: Some might say that this sort of “news” article is meant to manage attitudes related to other anniversary events, such as the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, or the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, which is to come in October. Personally, I would treat the 10-year anniversary of the bombing in Belgrade and the article above as a separate phenomenon.

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