War in the Balkans: Chinese supply a conveyor belt of embassy protesters - Peking

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The Independent Online
THERE WERE Buddhist monks, factory workers, busloads of face- painted art students and even a small jazz group calling itself "Musicians against Clinton".

Throughout yesterday the Chinese government mobilised a conveyor belt of representative social groups to show the world just how furious its people were over the bombing of its Belgrade embassy.

Police ushered groups of about 100 at a time through the cordon that has sealed off the embassy district, where the British and American missions have been under siege for three days. Ordinary Pekingers had no place on the official roster and were roughly turned away.

The media ran heart-rending pictures of the three dead Chinese journalists and their family members. The apologies from Nato and President Bill Clinton received no coverage.

By the weekend's standards, yesterday's was a more orderly outpouring of rage.

Many protesters brought home-made ammunition in the form of bricks and cans of paint but plain-clothes security personnel forced many to abandon their missiles. China's leaders do not want the violence to jeopardise their diplomatic advantage.

Outside the British embassy, the Union flag was nowhere to be seen. "We took it down this morning at the request of the police, who said it would lead to more trouble," said the ambassador, Anthony Galsworthy. All the embassy's front windows had been smashed and the forecourt was carpeted with hundreds of stones and bottles.

At the US embassy, diplomats shredded documents in case demonstrators took over the compound. James Sasser, the ambassador, said: "The [Chinese] government has appeared to have condoned and even supported the demonstrations."

Chinese fury has propelled Peking to the centre of world diplomatic manoeuvrings over Kosovo. Earlier this year China's view of itself as an emerging superpower was left bruised when Mr Clinton did not phone President Jiang Zemin before launching air attacks on Iraq. Now the tables are turned. Mr Jiang was enraged enough at the weekend to refuse to take the hotline telephone call from Mr Clinton.

Meanwhile, other international heavyweights are queuing for the Chinese President's time. His Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, phoned yesterday, and soon Russia's Balkan envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, was flying to Peking.

This week's visit by the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, has been downgraded to a one-day "working visit" but Mr Jiang can be sure his guest will be fully focused on the need to placate Chinese sensitivities.

As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China will relish any diplomatic kowtowing from Nato countries wanting support for the draft UN resolution over Kosovo.

But China's diplomatic tactics are still obscure. A Western diplomat said: "The tea-leaves are fantastically difficult to read. The Chinese have not really thought themselves where they want to go from here."

He described any UN resolution as a "litmus test" for how Peking will pursue its diplomatic agenda.

Crucial to the equation is Peking's internal agenda. From the outset, it has opposed Nato involvement in Kosovo, seeing parallels with the question of Taiwan. It considers Kosovo an intrinsic part of Yugoslavia, just as it considers Taiwan an inseparable part of China. Added to that are China's problems with its own restive regions. From Peking's perspective, a world apparently eager to offer support to the Kosovo Liberation Army could turn its attentions towards independence groups in China.

On the purely domestic front, Peking is seizing the opportunity to rally an increasingly disgruntled population. Opening the floodgates of nationalistic fervour has conveniently reinforced patriot-ic themes that government propaganda has been playing all year.

China's leaders could not risk being accused of weakness in the face of "foreign imperialists", and so decided to orchestrate massive protests. Now they are manoeuvring to claim all the credit they can.

Resolving the Kosovo crisis already seemed an almost impossible challenge before an outdated map and the wreckage of an embassy propelled China into the equation. But China brings to the negotiating table a baggage of different priorities.

The biggest losers will be the Kosovo refugees, whose existence has barely rated a paragraph in Chinese reports since the beginning of the war.

The big unknown is how the fall-out from the Belgrade embassy bombing has influenced the opaque machinations of Chinese leadership politics. Just last month, the Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, was in the United States, offering trade concessions in an attempt to seal China's entry into the World Trade Organisation.

On his return, Mr Zhu came under fire for having given away too much to Washington. Mr Zhu's opponents will now be able to seize on the bombing as proof that he has been too conciliatory towards China's natural enemy.