Conflict & Justice

How China used the US bombing of its Belgrade embassy to win a PR victory


An angry protester outside the US embassy in Beijing nearly fifteen years ago, on 09 May 1999. The US government's reputation in China took a serious blow after the Belgrade embassy bombing. The blame never really reached American citizens, however.


Stephen Shaver

SHANGHAI, China — Was it a mistake? Or was it an intentional assault carried out under the cover of a larger bombing campaign?

Either way, the bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War, played directly into the hands of a Communist Party keen to foment anti-American feeling a decade after the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Oddly enough, while it succeeded in degrading admiration for the US government, it seems to have barely affected how Chinese people view American citizens.

Fifteen years ago, on the night of May 7, 1999, B-2 stealth bombers took off from the Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri bound for Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Five US JDAM guided missiles hit the Chinese embassy. The bombs struck their target almost simultaneously, killing three, injuring 20 others and reducing much of the building to rubble.

Across China, huge protests erupted, with thousands of people hurling rocks at US diplomatic facilities. In Beijing, Amb. James Sasser and several other personnel remained trapped inside the American embassy for several days. Irate demonstrators in Chengdu and Guangzhou attempted to set fire to consulates there.

The US and NATO have always insisted that the incident was a tragic accident, the result of the CIA providing the wrong coordinates for a Yugoslav military target on the same street. That view is accepted by most in the West.

In China however, the incident was seen as deliberate, a “barbaric attack, a gross violation of Chinese sovereignty,” as an official statement phrased it.

In crisis there is opportunity, and Party officials appeared eager to stoke tensions to their benefit. Beijing was accused of bussing protesters to the US embassy. When President Clinton and representatives of the US State Department formally apologized for the bombings, the news was not broadcast by Chinese state-run media for several days, during which the demonstrations became angrier.

According to Sam Crane, professor of political science at Williams College and author of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao: Ancient Chinese Thought in Modern American Life," the bombing, accidental or not, was a propaganda coup for the Communist Party, which had been working hard through its patriotic education campaign to foster anti-American nationalism in the years after the pro-democracy protests of 1989.

“The regime cultivates the sense that China has been, and to a certain degree still is, victimized by Western imperialism,” Crane said. He added that the bombing’s primary effect was to “mobilize popular Chinese nationalism in a powerfully anti-American way.”

“I don’t think I met a single Chinese person at that time, and have only met a small handful since, who believed that [the bombing] was an accident,” said Kaiser Kuo, an American living in Beijing at the time.

In an editorial on the 10th anniversary of the incident, People’s Daily criticized the West’s failure to properly address the bombing, demonstrating that the “latent hostility the US holds towards China seems not to have vanished.”

“As far as proof to the Chinese people that the US can’t be trusted, the embassy bombing will be the gift that keeps on giving for years to come,” said Laszlo Montgomery, host of the popular China History Podcast. “People in China were convinced to the last man that it was deliberate.”

On a person-to-person basis however, anger rarely spilled over into outright violence. “There was one tense moment where someone shouted at me from across the street that if I was an American, he’d like to kill me,” said Jeff Wasserstrom, author of "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know." But the overall hostility was reserved for the government, “not people like me.”

“Even though Japan had nothing to with the Belgrade bombing, I would still have preferred to have been an American than Japanese in China at that moment,” said Wasserstrom. In fact, “the only group of exchange students who left China [because of the embassy bombing protests] was a set of Japanese students in Hangzhou.”

The restraint towards US citizens stands in stark contrast to anti-Japanese protests which broke out in 2005 and 2012 over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, which both countries claim, among other issues. During those protests, Japanese businesses and cars were vandalized and several people were attacked in the street.

According to Xu Guoqi, professor of history at the University of Hong Kong and author of the upcoming "Chinese and Americans: A Shared History," this is because the government has ultimately failed to foster anti-Americanism akin to the antipathy felt by many Chinese towards Japan.

“The incident did not change Chinese people’s overall positive attitude towards American culture and the American way of life,” said Xu. Even while the Chengdu consular residence was burning, the strength of American “soft power” was such that when CCTV stopped airing NBA games in protest, students who were in the streets denouncing the US bombing turned on the broadcaster and demanded it reinstate basketball programming. “That attitude of separating American policy from the American way of life and culture still exists today,” said Xu.

“Fifteen years on I think it’s something that I rarely hear a peep about from Chinese friends, even those with whom I butted heads [in 1999],” said Kuo.

The bombing, though it may not have cast a pall on American popular culture or interpersonal relationships, has led to a degree of cynicism about the country’s political system. “I think there’s less of a certain kind of idealization of the US than there was in earlier times,” said Wasserstrom.

"I think the bombing reinforced the perceptions of those who were already suspicious of US intentions towards China's growth," added Taryn Shepperd, author of "Sino-US Relations and the Role of Emotion in State Action." "[The bombing] added an element of doubt to those who viewed the US in a positive light, and more generally, fueled a general sense of mistrust about the nature and intentions of the ‘other.'"