Published on Wednesday, April 4, 2001 in the Guardian of London
An explicit threat - but only in Chinese
Beijing Hints that the Crew Could Be Subject to Legal Action in China
by John Gittings in Shanghai
It was China's turn yesterday to raise the stakes in the spy plane row with the United States: a series of statements piled on the pressure during the day. As so often with Chinese diplomacy, it was a mixture of tough talk and subtle hints needing careful study of the original text.
The all-important threat from the Chinese foreign ministry to put the crew of the US spy plane through a potentially lengthy legal process came right at the end of an extensive statement from the ministry's spokesman, Zhu Bangzao.
Even then, the threat was given only in the Chinese version - the whole phrase was omitted from the otherwise full English summary of Mr Zhu's remarks put out last night.
The verb to "deal with" ( chuli ) can also be translated as "to punish", especially when used with the phrase "according to law" ( yifa ). But it is a threat rather than a cast-iron commitment, no doubt designed to make Washington think again.
The official followed up with another tough demand: the US should "cooperate conscientiously with the Chinese investigation" and make a full apology.
Washington is the primary audience for this Chinese offensive, but Beijing's political tacticians will have designed it with domestic listeners in mind too. In the crisis public opinion has emerged as a factor the Chinese government must consider.
A wide range of outspoken unofficial views have been expressed on popular websites - including one run by the official People's Daily newspaper. Some contributors are criticising the official line as too "diplomatic."
"In the past 'public opinion' was mostly dictated by what the newspapers and the government laid down," according to a strategic analyst in Beijing, Gao Chaoqun. "Now it can express itself in a more independent way, particularly through the voices of younger people on the web."
The dominant mood of anger was summed up yesterday in a website message declaring that "Blood must be repaid with blood: Americans - listen!"
"When you are thousands of miles from our land," it asked, "what pretext do you have for allowing your warplanes to fly in our airspace?" (Beijing concedes this was not its airspace.)
Other contributors bitterly recalled the US bomb that fell on Beijing's embassy in Belgrade two years ago when Nato was bombing targets across Serbia during the Kosovo conflict. Many Chinese doubt that the embassy bombing was an accident.
Several called in terms once used by Mao Zedong for the Chinese people to "stand up and not kneel down". Some have complained that the government adopted too low a profile initially: there were sarcastic comments about the main story in Monday's People's Daily, which was said read more like an account of an official tree-planting ceremony than of a mid-air crash.
Many have suggested that the government should harden its line by "raising the price" (as Mr Jiang has now done) for meeting US demands for the return of its 24 crew members.
Outside observers are not sure whether the government is being moved by public pressure or is being steered in a direction it intends to take anyhow: perhaps both are at work.
Not everyone is calling for retribution. Cautious unofficial voices have warned that too hard a line could put ammunition in the hands of the US pro-Taiwan lobby.
"We should give back the plane and its crew and show compassion," argued one contributor to the People's Daily website. "Our main task is to prevent Taiwan from getting advanced weaponry from the US."
President Jiang Zemin, too, indicated yesterday that he still hopes the US-China relationship will return to a normal track. All his advisers have been urging him to give President George Bush the benefit of the doubt in spite of the anti-China noises from the new US administration.
Mr Gao, the strategic analyst, said that public opinion was a short-term factor, but that the government would be more guided by the need to takea long-term view on policy towards the US. But the spy plane crisis is putting such moderation under immense strain.
The existence of a US surveillance programme against China - though well known in government and military circles - has now entered the public domain in one dramatic stroke.
Popular newspapers have published details - taken directly from the US media - of the capabilities and crew of the EP-3 aircraft, and of its spying operations against China.
Having made the demand that such missions should stop, will Beijing pretend nothing is happening if they go on?
The US claim that it was over international waters has not gone down well at the official or popular level, though Beijing admits the US plane was not in Chinese airspace. Washington's image has also suffered from its failure to express sadness over the missing Chinese airman who must now be presumed dead. The pilot was named yesterday as Wang Wei. Chinese news agencies reported that he had parachuted out of his F-8 jet after the collision but he has not been found.
But the Chinese media have made a point of stressing Mr Jiang's concern about the pilot - which also took some time to emerge.
Beijing's case now includes complex but significant arguments about the legality of the US spy flights.
Mr Zhu argued that although the collision did not happen in Chinese airspace, it was over an "exclusive economic zone" which Beijing claims in the South China sea - a territorial claim that is disputed in the region.
He argued that while UN law allows peaceful transit over such areas this did not cover spying activities. He also revealed that the US and China had reached an agreement last year on "avoiding military risks in sea areas" - which the US had now violated.
The Chinese are arch-negotiators, but they are angry and not inclined to roll over to what they call US hegemonism.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001