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Background: U.S.-China Spy Plane Continuing Standoff

April 10, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The standoff with China began April 1, and has grown more complicated with each passing day. Early on, reports of the incident in China were straightforward. The Chinese foreign ministry said this in a statement broadcast on state-run television: “A Chinese aircraft was conducting normal flight operations… when a U.S. plane suddenly veered toward it. The nose and left wing of the U.S. Plane hit the Chinese plane and caused it to crash.”

The statement added that the government was making “proper arrangements” for the American crew. Meanwhile, the search for the missing Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, continued. But Chinese reaction became more pointed and angry after President Bush demanded the return of the plane and crew.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Our priorities are the prompt and safe return of the crew and the return of the aircraft without further damaging it or tampering.

GWEN IFILL: By the third day of the dispute, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, here greeting a foreign visitor, was making his own demands. “The United States,” he said, “bears all responsibilities for the downing of the Chinese plane and the loss of its pilot, and the U.S. should cease the surveillance flights.” Then came the first demand for an American apology.

ZHU BANGZAO (Translated ): The most urgent thing that the U.S. must do is not to make unreasonable requests, but to reflect and apologize to the Chinese. The Chinese government and Chinese people have a right to know why the U.S. sent their surveillance planes over Chinese territorial waters.

GWEN IFILL: The next day, China’s ambassador to the U.S., appearing on the NewsHour, portrayed his country as the victim.

YANG JIECHI: China is the injured party. Our man, you know, is missing, and it’s caused by the U.S. side. I think at least the U.S. Side should apologize. China is a sovereign country. We have our own dignity, so we have to safeguard our own sovereignty and dignity. And this issue has been caused not by the Chinese side, but by the American side.

GWEN IFILL: President Bush and senior administration officials altered their language, offering regrets for the loss of the pilot. But officials say Mr. Bush and Chinese President Jiang, who has been traveling in Latin America, have still not spoken directly. On Friday, day six, the wife of the downed Chinese fighter pilot and the wingman both went on Chinese television to blame the Americans.

ZHAO YU (Translated ): The U.S. side is fully responsible for this collision. It was directly caused by the collision of the U.S. plane veering at a wide angle toward our plane, making it impossible for our plane to avoid it.

GWEN IFILL: On Saturday, day seven, Chinese media reported for the first time President Bush’s statements of regret, while TV stations aired constant coverage of the missing fighter pilot, now considered a hero. Vice Premier Qian Qichen, in a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, declared: “The American attitude is still unacceptable to the Chinese side. And the Chinese people are extremely dissatisfied with this.” By Sunday, day eight, the Chinese released a letter from the downed pilot’s wife to President Bush. She wrote that he was too cowardly to apologize, adding: “I cannot figure out why you sent them to spy along China’s coast from such a great distance, and why they rammed my husband’s plane.”

And in China, some public opinion appears to be shifting against the United States: this — from the “People’s Daily” newspaper: “On this planet only the stuck-up United States is this rude and unreasonable.” By yesterday, on day nine, Chinese newspapers were printing anti-American headlines, and this cartoon of an American dumping trash on somebody’s head. The caption says, “give me my toy back.” Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell, moving in diplomatic inches, said over the weekend that the United States is sorry for the incident. But officials in Beijing today said that is still not enough.

SUN YUXI (Translated): We asked for an apology from the U.S. side, but to settle this problem properly, we hope the U.S. side can take a positive and cooperative attitude.

GWEN IFILL: And the army daily newspaper maintained its anti- U.S. hard line.

INTERPRETER: The U.S. … not only ignored China’s solemn and just demands, but instead resorted to sophistry and raised unreasonable demands. U.S. hegemonic behavior has aroused the vehement indignation of the Chinese people.”