Clash of cultures may mean long march to freedom

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The Independent Online

"There are some roads not to follow ... and some ground which should not be contested." Sound advice perhaps, though too late for the 24 American airmen and women grounded in Hainan after a Chinese jet fighter crossed their path. But diplomats negotiating the Americans' release have plenty of time to brush up on their Sun Zi, China's foremost military thinker. Sun's classic work The Art of War serves as a strategic bible for many officials and businessmen in China.

"There are some roads not to follow ... and some ground which should not be contested." Sound advice perhaps, though too late for the 24 American airmen and women grounded in Hainan after a Chinese jet fighter crossed their path. But diplomats negotiating the Americans' release have plenty of time to brush up on their Sun Zi, China's foremost military thinker. Sun's classic work The Art of War serves as a strategic bible for many officials and businessmen in China.

James Sasser, former US ambassador to Beijing, says: "The Chinese are negotiating as they always do when they hold all the cards, going very slowly, going very painstakingly, and drawing it out."

When you have 5,000 years of continual civilisation coursing through your veins, it seems natural to view time with a long-term perspective. That appears the challenge facing US negotiators in Beijing and Washington, as they try to end the 11-day stand-off. Unless President Bush produces the apology his Chinese counterpart demands, the diplomats could be in for a long haul.

The spy plane negotiations carry more significance for Beijing than Washington may appreciate. After 150 years of humiliation at the rapacious hands of foreign powers, China "stood up" under Mao Zedong, and now expects the "face" and respect due a world power. Nominally communist but intensely nationalistic, this rapidly modernising giant is still deeply rooted in the past.

Millenniums of conflict have bred tough negotiators, armed with an impressive arsenal of tricks, and ready to shame opponents into concessions by reminding them of historical slights. Yi Suhao, general manager of a Beijing auctioneer, says: "Around the negotiating table in China, more haste means less speed. Both sides must be patient, and carefully set up the parameters. If our plane landed in the US, would you let us go so soon? Americans do not understand our past, when we were bullied by foreigners, so they do not understand our outrage now. The US must change its attitude, and stop being so arrogant, or the negotiations will drag out even longer."

Yi knows all about arrogant foreigners. At a Hong Kong auction last year, he secured the return to the motherland of antique bronze animal heads looted by the Anglo-French troops who laid waste to Beijing's Old Summer Palace in 1860. Chris Patten, Britain's last colonial governor in Hong Kong, and vilified by Beijing, has few fond memories of dealing with the Chinese. "To negotiate with Beijing involved a 'through-the-looking glass' journey in which the awareness of delusion was always mockingly at hand," writes his biographer, Jonathan Dimbleby.

The American lawyer and author Laurence Brahm is an expert negotiator in China, and writer on Sun Zi and other philosophers. "The foreign side always start with the technical issues, in this case how to get the 24 people and plane back, and with a moving concept of progress," he says. "But Chinese work out a moral stance before anything else, then operate on a consistent line with that standard of principles.

"Immediately there was a cultural clash. The logic of the US approach is, 'I said I was sorry, isn't that enough?' But China needs an apology to an act it says infringes national dignity and sovereignty; an affront to a broad consensus of interests and a collective perception of similar incidents built up over 150 years."

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