April 4, 2001 -- While diplomats in Beijing and Washington play a careful game of diplomacy over the fate of the downed U.S. spy plane on the Chinese island of Hainan, an equally delicate game is taking place in China itself.
China is carefully moderating domestic reaction to the spy plane impasse, especially after the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 war in Kosovo.
The bombing, which Washington says was a tragic mistake caused by the use of outdated maps, killed three Chinese and inflamed public opinion against Washington. Crowds mobbed the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, throwing bricks at the building, breaking its windows and splattering it with paint.
Experts say the Chinese leadership doesn't want that sort of reaction now, especially since it has a bid for the Olympics on the line — but it doesn't want to seem too soft, either.
Focusing on Their Loss
After several days of relatively low-key coverage of the incident in the Chinese media, the incident is now dominating the papers.
The major theme is the Chinese have been wronged, the United States is the aggressor, and the United States needs to apologize in order for the two nations to be able to move on.
Chinese media outlets have pointed out that the only casualty of the incident appears to be a Chinese pilot. China says the incident happened when the American plane rammed the Chinese jet.
U.S. officials say it's more likely the faster, more maneuverable fighter ran into the large, slower EP-3E.
An editorial today in the state-run China Daily accused Washington of "arrogance in managing bilateral relations."
"In Washington's eyes, their citizens' lives are more valuable than others'. Washington's indifference to people's lives from other countries is actually nothing new," wrote the editorial's author, Jin Zeqing.
Jin also took issue with U.S. characterizations of the incident as an accident, writing, "anyone with common sense can clearly see who should take responsibility for the collision."
Jin also compared the collision with February's crash between an American submarine and a Japanese trawler that left nine dead.
On an Internet bulletin board at the China Daily Web site, others evoked the 1998 accident in which a U.S. military plane sliced through a cable supporting a gondola at an Italian ski resort, leaving 20 dead.
One reader, apparently addressing the United States, wrote: "You are the [guardian of human Rights aren't] you?But why didn't you show any sympathy to our pilot who might had died while asking [C]hinese government to protect your men ?"
Many people on the streets of Beijing told ABCNEWS they had similar feelings. It's only right, it was one of our planes that crashed, one of our pilots who's missing, they said.
Some members of the Chinese leadership have also recognized the impasse over the spy plane as a chance to show their determination in the face of the American superpower, Winston Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China, told ABCNEWS.
"You have those who say, 'look the U.S. is pressing this, they're flying close to our borders. Our people are going to be upset, the loss of a Chinese pilot. This goes on top of the bombing of our embassy. We've got to teach this new administration we can't be fooled with as they get off to the start of their four years.'"
A cartoon in the China Daily today recognized the parallel to the Belgrade bombing, with a cartoon that showed the EP-3 spy plane at Lingshui airport on Hainan island.
From the cockpit, a speech bubble appeared, saying. "It might be due to another map error."
Only the First Steps
The rhetoric is still relatively quiet, however.
State television today broadcast comments by ordinary Chinese expressing anger over the incident. But one of those interviewed also urged Chinese to stick to their normal routines — in apparent reference to the Belgrade bombing, and specifically, the riots that followed.
Chinese authorities have also been cutting off many of the tougher comments on chat rooms, Lord said.
The Chinese leadership is probably thinking, "We can get some advantage out of this, but let's not push it too far," said Lord.
At stake is not only the Olympics, but arms sales to Taiwan, entry to the World Trade Organization, and other major economic issues — not to mention the threat of getting off on the wrong foot with the new American president.
"I think there's a debate in the politiburo between those who want to take a hard line and those who say, 'We've got to deal with the Bush administration for four years, let's try to get out of this thing,'" Lord said.
ABCNEWS' Mark Litke in Beijing contributed to this report.