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China mellow about bugged 767

Country changed its tone after April’s spy-plane incident

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BEIJING — Last April when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese jet over international waters near China's coast, China's state press was filled with angry rhetoric and its people with indignation. "World Cop Stop the Arrogance," screamed the China Defense News, "Americans, You Are Too Hegemonic," blazed the Global Times — headlines typical of that time.

But this week, the Chinese barely made a peep after a new, perhaps even more shocking, set of espionage revelations came to light: President Jiang Zemin's newly delivered Boeing 767 had been surreptitiously loaded with dozens of listening devices while its interior was being outfitted last year in San Antonio.

In its first issue after the story was reported in the foreign media and on the Internet, The Global Times' lead headline was "Bush's Advance Team Is Coming," on a story about the president's much anticipated visit here. Internet chat rooms buzzed with talk of pop stars and rumors of stalkers' injecting pedestrians with AIDS-infected blood. At the Chinese Foreign Ministry, officials were distinctly low-key, noting that the bugging, which they called "a stupid action," would have no effect on Bush's trip to China that begins Feb. 21.

China's relationship with the United States has been changing dramatically, in tone if not substance, in the last eight months, and the most recent espionage accusations have served as a barometer of that shift.

"I don't know if I'd be so vain as to say the Chinese learned from events of last April," said Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, who was the U.S. ambassador here when the planes collided last spring. "But I think there is now a desire to prevent every event from becoming a crisis and to handle conflict in a less volatile way."

Although the first months of the Bush administration last year were marked by intense hostility between the countries, since last summer Jiang has increasingly reached out to the United States, supporting its military action in Afghanistan.

There are many pragmatic reasons for such a change, from China's hope that a more conciliatory tone would help promote its views on the divisive issue of Taiwan, to its desire to avoid the distraction of international crises as it is prepares to host the Olympics in 2008 and to meet obligations as a new member of the World Trade Organization. Last spring when the planes collided, China was still tensely waiting to see if it would get the Olympics or be invited to join the trade body.

Perhaps equally important, political analysts here said, is that Jiang is trying to make his mark as the architect of a new type of foreign policy so that he can stay central to China's politics even after he must formally step down next year.

And so, two similar espionage events dropped into separate contexts have produced markedly different reactions. The country's change of heart seems complete and dramatic because the central government still controls the media and, to a large extent, outward expressions of public opinion.

The Ministry of Propaganda instructed newspapers and news shows to carry nothing on the incident, and most have complied.

Following that cue, Internet chat room operators, who are required to monitor postings, said they had been editing out most critical comments about the incident to avoid trouble with the government.

In the face of such limited coverage, many Chinese are only dimly aware of the incident. Those who know about it, mostly intellectuals and college students, say they are upset but not irate. They note that the United States has been more friendly to China of late, and it is still unclear who bugged the plane — although the assumption on the street here is that Americans did.

"I think much of the anger is there just like last time, but now it's unacceptable and there's no way to show it," said one media commentator. He added that "anything that happens in next few months is going to be handled in low-key way because of the current political dynamic."

The most immediate pressure comes from Bush's planned visit, an important meeting for Jiang.

Jiang has angered many people here by actively supporting the United States in its war against terrorism, even sending Chinese diplomats last fall to press the U.S. cause with Pakistan's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. With such approaches, Jiang has wooed the Bush administration to a somewhat more moderate position on China, analysts and diplomats said.

"There's a mutual need for each other, and the Chinese want a good atmosphere for Bush's visit, possibly hoping that he'll say something to support China's position on Taiwan," said Gao Chaoquan, acting managing editor of China's most influential policy magazine, Strategy and Management.

With war and recession now consuming much of the world, neither China nor the United States can afford to engage in the kind of showdown that occurred after the spy plane collision.

The kind of extensive, ultra-patriotic media coverage that came on the heels of that incident could gin up popular anger that would be difficult for China's leaders to modulate.

"My roommates were quite angry. They felt America was up to its old tricks and nothing had changed," said Chen Xing, a computer student at Beijing University. But he said that the reaction was "not nearly as intense as in 4/2000."

"Since there is no media coverage, people can see this is not the same kind of issue," he said. "Since it involves leaders and the military, it's not just the media — everyone knows that it wouldn't be sensible to say too much."

For one thing, any public rendition of the tale would make the Chinese military look either silly or corrupt, because it was supposed to provide 24-hour security for the plane while it was in San Antonio.

It would also emphasize the little-known news that Jiang Zemin had purchased an expensive foreign aircraft with a fancy imported interior. One posting on Beijing University's electronic bulletin board latched onto that fact, asking: "Why buy a Boeing? Isn't a domestically made Bee-2 good enough?"

Many in China who recalled intense fury over the plane collision feel little right now. "I think everyone can see that the relationship between China and the U.S. is better now," said Fu Xiaobin, a graduate student. "I don't think people's basic views have changed, but since 9/11 the U.S. has been talking to China and the countries are finding a new shared interest."