The one-year anniversary of the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade comes at an inconvenient time for those hoping Congress soon grants China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status. Television clips of the destroyed embassy in Serbia and of angry protestors marching through Beijing will remind us all of the tragedy and of the impassioned response. On the other hand, a look back at last May’s events are not necessarily a boon to those who want to make China out to be a pariah either. The complexity of how to interpret China’s reaction to the bombing is brought home by the experiences my family and I had while living in China at the time.
Fragrant Rice Garden, our neighborhood in the months leading up to last May, is composed of a dozen buildings, high and squat, set on the Western edge of Beijing. Its residents are mainly employed in various ministries, from culture and railways to state security. Out the front window of our apartment sat the Summer Palace, where many an emperor relaxed during the region’s famously hot months. Out the back window hung the Golden Arches, where throngs of families now seek shelter from the heat with a/c, a small fries and a Big Mac.
As expected, my family—myself, my wife, and our four-year old son, Isaac—faced various inconveniences and the unfamiliar. The neighborhood’s name is taken from a bygone era when rice patties dotted this wing of the city. With dilapidated plumbing, ‘fragrant’ it certainly was not. The pathways were often littered with debris, which most do not even shrug over in resignation; they just step over it. And many a stranger curiously reached out to stroke Isaac’s strange face and curls, a well-meaning ritual of which we quickly tired.
But we were open to a whole side of urban society not usually encountered by foreigners, the vast majority of whom live in walled-in compounds. Except for one recalcitrant, we were welcomed with openness. Interacting with those at the corner store, the migrant watermelon hawker, the mailman, and the neighborhood committee (the lowest level of city government) brought regular insights about a community’s values, daily rituals, as well as tensions caused by economic dynamism and political rigidity. We discovered that elevators, with their “elevator drivers,” are social centers of the community where gossip and recipes are exchanged. As is custom, Isaac became other children’s “brother” and my wife and I their “aunt” and “uncle.” Although he had difficulty fitting in, my son made friends at the local nursery school, which led to our own friendships with their parents. By early Spring last year we had integrated into the regular web of life.
But that existence was rudely shaken last May when news of the bombing spread through Beijing like wildfire. By coincidence, I was in southern China at the time doing research. My wife and son stayed inside at first. After I returned a couple days later, we ventured out of our building to find an older neighbor warning us to stay put. Not heeding his warning, our presence sent others, perhaps angry, perhaps scared, running from a park with children in tow.
Several days later, we returned to the park, heartened that we still had friends. “That was between governments, not us,” they said. As we looked on into the night, we could barely distinguished between my son and his playmates. All were screaming in Chinese, counting to 20 for hide-and-seek, each wanting a turn at the jump rope. But then a little seven-year old asked where I was from. My answer, “America,” led to her shocking reply: she yelled out a Chinese homonym for “embassy” that came out as “beating death hall.” She was soon joined by two smaller girls. Their teachers had apparently taught them the saying, and also told them to stay away from McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, a punishment worse than death in the eyes of your average urban Chinese youngster.
More remarkably, that night I was stunned to hear that the parents of one of the reporters killed in the Chinese embassy lived in the building next to ours. Over the previous week, I had repeatedly seen pictures of a father on TV leaning over his daughter’s body and weeping uncontrollably, and of a mother asking how, with a daughter of his own, the President could engage in such terror. I went to confirm the gossip. Their neighbor nodded and asked straight-faced if I wanted to go up and pay my respects. Would the sight of me as neighbor bring consolation or me as American stir up anger? I declined but passed on my condolences, even said I was sorry—sorry their child was gone and sorry my country had something to do with it.
Just another week removed from the bombing, the atmosphere in Fragrant Rice Garden lightened almost as suddenly as it had darkened, a contrast to the deafening tirade carried in the Chinese media and the hostility on college campuses. Our neighbors greeted us in elevators and in the streets, and hawkers pushed their watermelons on us. Conversations resumed, though we usually took different sides when it came to whether the bombing was a mistake. The occasional passerby reached out again to Isaac’s cheek; what was once annoying had become oddly comforting. And just hours before we boarded a plane home, we stopped at Isaac’s school. His classmates jumped for joy at the sight of him, yelling out his name, chasing him in a game of tag.
Our experiences left me torn for many months. Even today, it is hard to reconcile the street protests directed against the US with our enduring friendships with individual Chinese. But in reflection, I see parallels to domestic social tensions in the US. Racial integration has been an important component of ameliorating conflict between races here. Living in Fragrant Rice Garden was often uncomfortable, and in the weeks after bombing, even somewhat tense. Yet being there was the best way to break through the impact of CNN’s singular focus on the protests and the Chinese media’s on the bombed out embassy. Isaac’s teachers taught his friends about nationalism and difference, but the mark he left on those children hopefully was more tangible. Living together, in harmony and conflict, was an eye-opening experience for both us and our neighbors. Caricatures were replaced by real faces.
The same logic of integration also speaks in favor of granting China PNTR and welcoming it into the WTO. Like the foreign compounds in Beijing, locking our doors or putting up fences—to keep us in and them out—is a reaction based on fear. If we have such confidence in our ourselves, our values and our institutions, we should be able to live with even a neighbor as difficult as China, and they with us. Integration does not mean acceptance; it means tolerance. China will never live up to our expectations—and we probably neither to theirs—but by interacting more deeply and closely, we are likely to be disappointed less often.
The bombing and its aftermath showed both sides at their worst. But our neighborhood also revealed that those events make greater integration all the more urgent and should not be used as an excuse to generate further hostility. Those living in Fragrant Rice Garden took steps toward heeling their wounds. The question is whether two countries can do the same. Like it or not, we are all neighbors.
Scott Kennedy was a visiting scholar at Peking University during the 1998-1999 academic year. Currently a doctoral candidate at George Washington University, he will begin teaching at Indiana University in the fall.