May 8, 1999, was a sunny Saturday as Jolie and I rode through Beijing on an outing with some students. A paperboy approached our car at a stoplight. The driver paid him through the open window, took the newspaper, folded it, and tucked it down against the door. The other students made no comment as we continued our outing.
It was only after we’d arrived back at the college that our administrator greeted us with the news: “America just bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.”
The previous Friday night, five guided U.S. bombs, under the direction of NATO, had destroyed the Chinese embassy and killed three Chinese journalists. American spokesmen said it was a mistake, and President Bill Clinton apologized. Later — much later — evidence suggested that faulty GPS software had misidentified the target.
Those bombs fell almost 10 years after the Peoples’ Liberation Army had massacred student protesters in Tiananmen Square. Estimates of that death toll range from the official 241 to 10,000, with thousands more wounded at Tiananmen, “Gate of Heavenly Peace.”
Now, a decade later (our third year in China) we were among several Americans teaching at a College of English not far from Tiananmen Square. Life quickly became interesting.
On Sunday, the principal asked me to address Monday’s all-college assembly on behalf of the foreign teachers. What the hell was I to say? I spoke, but can’t remember what I mumbled.
By the time we assembled on Monday, the school’s main entrance was graced by several large, hastily drawn posters depicting American planes bombing China’s embassy. We walked past those posters for weeks.
Later that week the government bused students from all over Beijing to protest at the U.S. embassy. The students (and many others) swarmed around the embassy, following instructions from bullhorn-carrying leaders. They screamed, threw rocks, and would have stormed it if U.S. Marines hadn’t stood guard.
A few days later, after classes resumed, an American colleague overheard a student remark, “I want to kill Americans!” Her husband, a popular teacher, was not much older than his students. He often played basketball with that student and his classmates. “Would you kill John?” she asked him. “Sure I would,” was the reply.
Foreign teachers were warned, for their own safety, not to leave the college, but we were running out of food. One afternoon we walked apprehensively to the street market where we usually bought produce. We often practiced our broken Chinese with the vendors, to their delight and amusement. Our “banana guy,” had a stentorian voice. When he saw us coming, he ran out from behind his stall and roared for all to hear (and I’ve translated), “My good friends! My good American friends!”
Two years later, April 1, 2001, a Chinese interceptor jet collided with a propeller-driven U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over international waters 70 miles from China’s Hainan Island. The damaged American plane made an unapproved emergency landing on Hainan after 15 unanswered distress requests. The fighter pilot was presumed dead. Authorities detained and interrogated the 24 crew members until America issued a “letter of the two sorries,” with intentionally ambiguous phrasing that allowed both countries to save face. Video from earlier reconnaissance confirmed the missing pilot had “intercepted” previous missions. The Chinese demanded $1 million for the lost pilot and plane, but the U.S. refused. That pilot was awarded the “top honor” for young Chinese people.
We were in Dalian then, 300 miles east of Beijing. Most students were sympathetic toward the Americans, although designating the Chinese pilot a hero influenced many.
The communist regime is repressive, but during our 11 years there, we fell in love with the people, from vendors to students and colleagues. We’ve been gone from China for 16 years, but we follow events from the perspective of our experiences. We’re not “old China hands,” but experience helps us understand and interpret current events there. We’re also in touch electronically with a few friends there, both Chinese and American.
Given the Chinese penchant for face-saving theater, for suppressing and manipulating information, it’s always best to verify, to respond cautiously and not let our emotional responses balloon out of proportion.