April 9, 2001

Fallen pilot China's Scarlet Pimpernel

It was Wang Wei's birthday on Friday. Who? Well, I can tell you're not Chinese, my friend, because by this time practically every citizen of the PRC knows the name of a man who has become a national hero virtually overnight. He's the object of admiring profiles in the Chinese government-controlled media – one account describes the young Wang Wei as a child "who seldom caught a cold and [was] always healthy and strong and that is why he was finally recruited by the air force" – and the subject of this ode penned by an anonymous poster to the People's Daily Internet message board, "Ode to Wang-Wei," which I can't resist reproducing here in full:

"Somewhere in the South China Sea does lay,
A Chinese fighter pilot by the name of Wang-wei.
How is it he has chosen in that place to stay?
Did he take a wrong turn and go the wrong way?

"For, you see, Wang-wei, he so loved to play,
With recon planes who came out to survey,
What China was planning, to see what may,
Occur in the future with Taiwan in the way.

"So, he thought to himself,
'These American spies, how
dare they,
Intrude into our waters – now they must pay!
I will show them, surely, the Chinese way,
They will remember me on this momentus [sic] day.'

"He was filled with bravado, as he buzzed around the plane,
The American crew, they just thought him insane,
'What is it with this guy, has he no brain?
He has everything to lose and nothing to gain.'

"But Wang-wei was determined to be remembered that day,
For his bravado, his flashy and flamboyant way,
He soared 'neath the plane, then in front with his spray,
Spewing fumes in their faces as if to say,

To every American who dares to spy China's way,
'I'm here, I'm there, I'm always in your way,
I'm the Tom Cruise of China, I'm the great Wang-wei!'

"Yeah, Wang-wei, he went down on that very day,
In the daredevil game that he so loved to play,
He went down for his country, or so they say,
To remind to all recons who again spy China's way,
'My life's in the balance, it is that you now weigh,
Do not spy on dear China or else you must pay,
For that I went down to the place I now lay,
The occasion [sic] by which you will mark this day!'"

I venture to guess that this is some Chinese kid, perhaps one of the students who showed up at the US embassy in Peking with signs denouncing "US imperialism" – and was hustled away by Chinese police, who have put a damper on all such protests. Pretty good for someone whose native tongue is not English. I daresay our own youngsters – who can barely read English, let alone Chinese – could not do half as well.


In any case, although a few Americans on the message board were challenging the Chinese contention that the incident represented a violation of China's sovereignty, the rest of the messages were from Chinese imbued with the same nationalist spirit that animated the author of the "Ode to Wang-Wei" – a deeply outraged sense that the US was interposing itself in their own back yard. Yet the Chinese authorities are horrified by the prospect of nationalistic students protesting in the streets, for this would be seen as not only a threat to the Communist party's "leading role," but also as a move to box the Chinese leadership in by keeping up pressure on the Chinese Foreign Ministry – popularly known in China as the "sellout ministry" – to stand up to the Americans. In Beijing, military police turned away three flag-waving protesters near the US ambassador's residence, in the first hint of anti-US protest since the crisis began. Reuters reports that "two men and a woman, described by witnesses as students, were stopped by at least seven Chinese military police on the road near the residence and left peacefully." The Chinese leadership, committed to globalization and entry into the WTO, would just as soon settle this without a formal apology – but doesn't dare go up against the strong nationalist sentiment that has welled up as a consequence of this incident.


George W. Bush is in roughly the same position as the Chinese leaders: his own anti-China wing of the Republican party is hot under the collar, and every minute that those 24 hostages are "detained" – yes, let's use the "h"-word: after all, as Drudge points out today [Sunday], this is "Day 8" – the rhetoric of the 'Hate China' lobby rises by several decibels. Rep. Henry Hyde was the first Republican leader to use the "h"-word in public, and this past Saturday he railed on CNN's Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields that "We ought to be demanding that they apologize for surveilling our planes and flying so closely to them." Does Hyde realize how utterly deranged this sounds, not only to rational Americans but to anyone who lives anywhere else in the world? As Charles Lane points out, "the United States itself has imposed a 200-mile zone off its coasts within which foreign military aircraft must identify themselves or risk interception." So how is it that the US arrogates to itself the "right" to spy, unmolested, within a range of 70 nautical miles off China's coastline, where the incident took place? This is a question that one almost never hears in the American media – to my knowledge, Lane is the only one to make this point in a veritable outpouring of commentary on this incident – but it is one well worth asking.


There are several other key questions that need to be asked, first and foremost: why did the American plane choose to fly the 70 miles to Hainan's military airport – the epicenter of Chinese military power in the region – rather than take a chance and fall into what the US defines as "international waters." That would have risked the lives of crew members, true, but isn't that what being in the military is all about? We are told that this plane was stuffed to the gills with super-secret ultra-hi tech gizmos, and that their capture by the Chinese is an absolute disaster for the US. So why wasn't it better off at the bottom of the South China Sea, rather than on the tarmac at a Chinese military airport near the town of Lingshui? With all the billions upon billions that we spend on arming our Pacific fleet, do you mean to tell me that the US was incapable of launching a rescue operation within minutes of splashdown?


Of course, this could be chalked up as yet another in a long series of recent military accidents, of which the sinking of the Ehime Maru was only the most spectacularly careless and damaging – until the Hainan incident, that is. To say that our military has been accident-prone lately is a bit of an understatement, to say the least. But consideration has to be given to another theory, that it was a deliberate provocation on the part of the US – a possibility buttressed by our government's own statements. For certain military chieftains have let it be known that this wasn't the first time the issue of our spy planes buzzing the Chinese had come up: in January and February the issue had been raised by diplomats of both countries. We are told the US pilots had come to know Wang-Wei quite well: the Pentagon claimed to have photos of him, the story went out that he was "reckless" and he is said to have flashed his email address as a way of taunting the Americans. This, then, is the context in which the US sent a spy plane into a disputed zone without a fighter escort, and with the expectation that the relatively slow reconnaissance plane would surely be intercepted.


So, what's up with that? The Chinese generals must be asking themselves the same question about what one news story called this "gift from the sky." When in doubt, inject a little Rothbardian truth serum into the discussion by recalling your Latin long enough to remember what is meant by "Cui bono?" This is the question my old friend and mentor, the late Murray Rothbard, used to ask in order to develop (or test) a hypothesis: Who benefits? Employing this method doesn't always lead you to the answer immediately, but it generally puts you on the right track. In this case, it just so happens that, a week before the incident, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld announced his new "Pacific strategy" – based on the idea that China, and not Russia, is the "principal threat" to US interests. This announcement came in the midst of numerous reports that Rumsfeld, the resurrected cold warrior and much-touted hardliner, and the relatively moderate Colin Powell are locked in a intramural power struggle over who really controls US foreign policy. Then, all at once – ka-boom! – and it's Day 8 of another hostage crisis. As long as the US is trying to make a deal – with the US State Department and the Chinese foreign ministry trying to put off resolving the escalating conflict by schluffing it all off on some bi-national "commission" – then Powell is in charge. But if that fails, then not only are the hardliners vindicated, but the military begins to get in on the action – and Rumsfeld moves to the fore.


Now, I'm not – repeat: not! – saying the whole thing was a setup, and that the US spy plane was deliberately handed to Beijing on a silver platter. But certainly secretary Rumsfeld did nothing to discourage routine spying operations along the Chinese coastline, in spite of the obvious risks, and almost certainly he and his staff had calculated the odds of an aerial confrontation with the Chinese. They apparently found it a risk well worth taking. What they didn't count on, perhaps, was the decision by the plane's commanding officer – or whomever – to land at Lingshui airport, smack dab in the middle of the most highly sensitive Chinese military base in the region. This is a mystery that will only be cleared up by the crew members themselves – but when we next hear from them, it may well be in the dock of a Chinese courtroom.


That would be most unfortunate. But when you think about what really happened, in objective terms, then the wonder is that the Chinese refrained from shooting the plane down. For what would have happened if a Chinese military plane, containing god-knows-what – atomic weapons, botulism, a new and highly offensive television series cooked up by Rupert Murdoch – was detected on our radar, headed straight for a major military base? The Chinese claim that our spy plane not only invaded their airspace, but refused to communicate with Chinese air traffic control; US authorities contend that the plane sent out a "Mayday" signal, but have said little else on the subject. So the Chinese plane is coming straight at us, silent in the face of repeated inquiries – if we wouldn't shoot such a plane out of the sky, then why oh why do we have a military at all? For once, in that case, the US military would be performing its only legal and constitutional function: defending the country from attack.


This is precisely what Wang-Wei was doing when his fighter plane crashed into the sea: defending his homeland from what he and his countrymen considered an attack. This is why the "Ode to Wang-Wei" was written, and is being widely circulated over the Internet by Chinese students, and why he is being hailed as a hero not only by the official media but by the Chinese people themselves. The two, for once, are in synch. This presents the Chinese leaders with a unique dilemma: for any attempt on their part to back down is bound to provoke an internal reaction, and this could lead to major political and economic instability down the road. On the American side, George W. Bush is facing the same dilemma: back down, and face the wrath of the China-haters – or quite possibly share the fate of poor old Jimmy Carter, who was driven from the White House by the Iranian hostage crisis.


The US government's official position – that they have the right to intrude to within 12 miles of the Chinese coastline, but reserve the right to intercept foreign intruders within 200 miles of their own territory – is only one of many absurdities associated with this incident, but it is the most telling. For this is the imperial style: pompous, overbearing, lumbering, and generally without a clue. Up against this clueless colossus, Wang-Wei, the Scarlet Pimpernel of Chinese nationalism, risked his life, and lost it. But in losing it, he won a moral victory: he died a patriot, and the youth of his nation sing his praises. But what of American youth: are they out in the streets demanding the release of the 24 hostages? Do the police have to restrain them, as in China, do their professors have to intervene and forbid all demonstrations, as recently happened in Beijing, in order to prevent the general outpouring of their rage? Of course not. There is no rage – and this goes for their elders as well – but only the sinking feeling that our government has f*ck*d up yet again. There is plenty of time to build up some orchestrated rage, of course, or else what's a "free" media for, but time is not on the side of the US government.


For the longer the hostages are held, the more details of the US spy operation will come out, and the closer we'll get to the central mystery in all this, the answer to the persistent question: why did a highly-prized spy plane choose not to take the risk of a sea rescue, and at least take measures to prevent the plane from falling into Chinese hands? Why, instead, did they land on Hainan? Inquiring minds want to know, and the longer this drags on the more opportunity there will be for some real inquiries to be made. Yes, even our own brain-dead pro-government media will begin to ask questions, if only for the sake of getting ahead of the competition, and then things could start to get really interesting.


As it is, we know next to nothing about what happened over the South China Sea that fateful day, except that a collision occurred: aside from the conflicting stories about the circumstances that led to the mid-air collision, the US has been strangely silent on exactly what happened after the spy plane was hit. Surely they didn't lose all communication with one of the most technologically advanced planes in the US arsenal, one that specialized in communications (intercepting them that is). The damage sustained by the US plane was extensive, but not so bad that it couldn't limp all the way to the Lingshui airport. There must have been some kind of communication between the plane and those who were giving the orders. What was said? Did the plane proceed to land at Lingshui on orders from higher-ups, and, if so, why? If the US government will release the transcript of the last communication with the spy plane, perhaps we will get a clearer picture of just what did happen. We're supposed to be such a free and "open" society, compared to those nasty old Commies: I'm sure the US government will have no problem releasing this information, and of course it's just an oversight that it hasn't done so already. [Sarcasm off]


We hear much about how the Hainan incident is a test of which country will turn out to be the paramount power in the region – but the "region" we are talking about is separated from the continental United States by the friggin' Pacific Ocean. That the US aspires to be the Number One regional power in Eastasia may have the Chinese thinking that what they need is an Asiatic version of the Monroe Doctrine. Just as the newly-freed American colonies declared to the powers of Europe that the Americas must be free of their interference, so the Chinese are now declaring, in no uncertain terms, that Asia must not be ruled from Washington. What is frightening to the Americans is that the echoes of this defiance are to be found not only in China, but in Japan, Korea, and throughout Eastasia – but that is a subject for another column. For now, let us contemplate the words of the anonymous poet, whose ode to Wang-Wei ought to serve as a warning:

"Spewing fumes in their faces as if to say,
To every American who dares to spy China's way,
'I'm here, I'm there, I'm always in your way,
I'm the Tom Cruise of China, I'm the great Wang-wei!'"


For the US to insist that it has "hegemony" in Eastasia is as dangerous, and absurd, as the Chinese proclaiming that they must dominate the Caribbean. The Pacific Ocean is not an American lake, and to make it so would require more troops and treasure than any nation could be expected to sacrifice. The natives, however, are willing to sacrifice everything in their fight to prevent this, as our anonymous poet makes all too clear:

"Yeah, Wang-wei, he went down on that very day,
In the daredevil game that he so loved to play,
He went down for his country, or so they say,
To remind to all recons who again spy China's way,

'My life's in the balance, it is that you now weigh,
Do not spy on dear China or else you must pay,
For that I went down to the place I now lay . . ."


Conservative Republicans, slavering for war against the "Red Chinese," have to recognize that this is what they are up against: not Communism, but Chinese patriotism. In that sense, even they must bring themselves to admire the spirit of Wang-Wei, a patriot who gave his life for his country. It is no disrespect to the 24 American crew members being held by the Chinese to acknowledge as much. But what the China-haters must also bring themselves to acknowledge is that, while the behavior of the Chinese side was all-too-predictable, the actions of our own side both before and after the crash are a mystery waiting to be uncovered.


At least part of the mystery may have been cleared up by a story published by the South China Morning Post just as I put this column to bed: according to the SCMP, the pilot of the remaining Chinese fighter asked for permission to shoot down the spy plane:

"After seeing the loss of Wang's plane, Zhao radioed ground control for permission to shoot down the US plane, but this was refused, they said. 'The officials at ground control were cool-headed,' one source said. 'Zhao could have shot the plane down but that would have meant the death of 24 US airmen. It would have been an act of war, whereas the collision was an accident.' The sources said that after the collision, the spy plane attempted to fly to the northeast, away from China. However, Zhao maneuvered to prevent this and forced the plane to land at Hainan's Lingshui base, where it was immediately surrounded by Chinese military."


So now we know why the Chinese didn't shoot the spy plane down – they were too smart to fall into that trap. What this proves is that the Chinese, far from being aggressive, have showed considerable restraint. In continually harassing China, and constantly provoking her air defenses, the US played a dangerous game – and lost. Instead of whining about how the inside of a spy plane on the tarmac in Lingshui, on Hainan island, is somehow "sovereign" US territory, the US needs to make a much broader statement. Instead of framing the debate in terms of whether or not to issue a meaningless "apology," the US should simply announce that it is no longer going to engage in this sort of surveillance – of China or of any other nation. That would no doubt win the release of the 24 crew members, without losing face or sacrificing some essential principle. We need to give up the idea that the US can do whatever it likes without regard or respect for the sovereignty and dignity of other nations – and that will be no loss. For such a ruthless, even barbaric policy is not in our interests, and can only lead to widespread resentment of America.


What is also clear from this late-breaking story – even if it isn't the whole truth – is that the US government has been less than forthcoming about what really happened to our spy plane, and why. As the real facts become known, and the details begin to be filled in, a picture of an incredibly bungled spy operation comes into focus. The result of this major blunder on the part of the Bush administration is that 24 American servicemen, including three women, are being held captive, and could be put on trial. Since they are paying the price for a needlessly provocative policy, any apologies issued by the Bush administration need to be directed to them and their families. As for the Chinese, they'll settle for a new policy: one based on mutual respect for the concept of national sovereignty.

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