Media fail to capture full historical context of Sino-American relations

“China does nothing to halt attacks on U.S., British embassies.” Headlines and lead stories from the Boston Globe and The New York Times this weekend were loaded with insinuations about the role of “the Government” of China in encouraging public outrage and violence against Americans after NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on Friday. In fact, the Chinese government may be encouraging student and general public protest and condoning subsequent violence. But the protests are not a clear story of government propaganda and incitement. If not for a long history of Sino-American tensions, extending even beyond recent trade and human rights issues, the protesters would not have been likely to go to such an extreme. This is a point which the news media of the United States have failed to address thoroughly, and which we cannot understand fully from associated news press clips on our e-mail terminals.

When I initially heard about the tragedies of this weekend, my greatest sadness was for the victims of the embassy bombing, but what most stuck in my mind was an image of the American reporter in Beijing who bore the brunt of protesters’ violence as she covered their activities on Sunday morning. I found the violent response disturbing, especially as an American who plans to travel, live and work in China.

In my mind, I defined the lines of conflict almost involuntarily. A bumbling NATO. The controlling “Government.” The frenzied students eager for a cause. The old man, a retired factory worker in the crowd, bitter from years of economic struggles with global capitalism. The valiant reporter sacrificing to inform and educate her audience? If I simply divide the characters of the Sino-American relationship and draw such boundaries even unconsciously, I run the risk of oversimplifying and reducing a long story, thick with complexity. The story of China and “the West” is not so easily symbolized as the media would have me believe.

To American audiences, Chinese assessments of the bombing as “barbaric” and “imperialistic” may seem overblown and groundless. NATO and President Clinton himself have expressed deep regret and sorrow for the bombing, and have called the incident “an isolated tragic mistake.” So why has the Chinese public responded with actions of such apparently extreme rage? Of course, as any nation’s citizens would, the Chinese have reacted to such destruction and killing as a sad and horrible event. But even more than that, after years of battling foreign oppression in many forms, they see the incident as a direct, personal affront, if not an outright attack on the integrity of their nation. Why?

Perhaps the real question in the eyes of China is “Why not?” The United States and most other Western nations have not experienced the same extent of foreign oppression and intervention that the Chinese have. Having not lived in a constant, often unconscious, battle for survival against Western superpowers for 150 years, as China has, we have an entirely different frame of reference. We cannot rightly define such a perspective as oversensitive, without examining China’s logic. According to the Boston Globe, the general sentiment of Chinese government and public alike is that the NATO bombing of the embassy was an “inexcusable interference in internal affairs of a sovereign state.” Emphasis on sovereignty is not a novel creation of the Chinese government. It dates back throughout the past century and a half to China’s reform movements, and to such Sino-American official treaties as The Shanghai Communique, which former Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and former President Richard Nixon signed in 1972 to ensure “the right to safeguard the independence, sovereignty. . . and oppose foreign aggression, interference, control and subversion.” By now, the feeling of need for “sovereignty” and wholeness from the West has permeated Chinese mindsets so much that it is almost less political than cultural – the Chinese government need not plant a seed. The idea that Western interests and actions are challenging and contrary to Chinese sovereignty has been growing for a long time.

With that in mind, a slogan of “Safeguard national sovereignty and dignity,” as in Xi’an protests this weekend, seems to reek less of government orchestration, and to represent more of a general public consciousness. Nationalist sentiment is not a recent injection by government and media into the mentality of the Chinese public. Popular discontent with foreign oppression and intervention has been a thread in Chinese society since 19th-century imperialism. Challenges posed by Western nations and interests to Chinese politics, economy and society have long offended a strong Chinese “Middle Kingdom” sense of superiority, and have historically proven to be a threat that the Chinese people cannot ignore safely. According to some, the contemporary scene is no different; in fact, some representatives of Asian nations have vocalized concern about “New Imperialism,” in the form of capitalism. Protecting oneself for so long seems bound to induce a sense of always being on the defensive, a sense that no government, however militarily powerful, could ever create independently.

But the immediate assumptions that the media encourage us to make when they create video clips and provide up-to-the-minute information do not reveal this sense of history. They convey an image of a highly manipulative government, behind the scenes of the protest. They go for the graphic shots and forsake the background. They reach for unforgettable images of protesters hurling rocks into the American embassy, or an American reporter bearing the brunt of Chinese frustrations.

I do not excuse the violent and destructive outbursts of this past weekend, and I do not suggest that we read a history tome or take a class for background on every line of every article. I do, however, ask that we approach recent events more versed in the complexities of the Sino-Western relationship, and that we do not simply rely on web images, sound bites or e-mail synopses from Baxter Lounge.

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