- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2001

The Chinese are wily and usually woolly, brash to the point of recklessness, but they're as transparent as a plate of rice noodles.

The old guys running the store in Beijing are peasants, after all, still as uncomfortable in the traps of diplomatic manners as roosters dressed up in socks and suspenders, with little of the sophistication and polish and none of the elegance and elan of the Chinese in Taiwan and Singapore. They often behave like redneck thugs.

This is not necessarily the explanation of why they're acting like warlords over the bumping and seizure of the U.S. reconnaissance plane near Hainan Island over the weekend, but it's a clue to understanding why they're going about making whatever point they're trying to make with bluster and bloviation.

The Beijing government is unhappy with the United States about several things at the moment, some clearly important and some that appear trivial in American eyes but not to the Chinese, for whom face is important and who sometimes behave like backwoods bumpkins as if they don't know any better. Often they don't.

They appear to be angry over, in an order best known to themselves, (1) the possibility if not probability that the United States will sell an advanced radar system to the Republic of China on Taiwan, which would make successful aggression against the island far more difficult than it might otherwise be; (2) the defection of a senior general to the United States who brought with him a lot of secrets and insights into the current thinking of the Chinese military; and (3) maybe even over the continuing demonstrations at the embassy on Connecticut Avenue by members of the Falun Gong, whose devotion to push-ups, knee-bends and deep breathing appears to pose great peril to the Beijing government.

The embassy's long-suffering neighbors in Kalorama have noticed, sometimes with bemusement and sometimes with irritation, the escalation of one-upsmanship on the avenue. The Falun Gong, which Beijing purely despises, set up its posters and banners on a little tuft of parkland at the front door of the embassy, and lately the embassy has begun to answer with its own posters and "news bulletins" on the sidewalk opposite the Falun Gong. The result is a war of the purple passage: "Falun Gong Respectfully Requests Chinese Government Stop Murdering Innocent People" vs. "Falun Gong is Bad Cult Who Show No Respect for Chinese People." It's reminiscent of the Great War Between Imperialist Running Dogs and Glorious Socialist Peoples in the years of the Cultural Revolution. The mainland Chinese love to speak in Capital Letters, though something clearly gets lost in the translation.

It's tempting to put 2, 2 and 2 together the continuing aggravation with Russia, North Korea and China and come up with a solid 6, but the sum may be considerably less than the accumulation of the parts. The incident over Hainan Island may not be the harbinger of the resumption of the Cold War at all, but merely the routine hazing of a new president. Hicks or not, the mainland Chinese can read the newspapers and they've heard all the jokes, the liberal ranting and the Democratic raving about Dubya and maybe they've swallowed it whole and concluded that they could take him without popping a sweat. If so, they're likely to see what his Democratic detractors have seen, a backbone closer to steel than to spaghetti.

If there's no hysteria in Taiwan, there's no justification for it anywhere else. Chinese war gaming and troop movements often provoke sell-offs on Taiwan's jittery stock market, just like war scares frighten investors on Wall Street. That hasn't happened. And by noon yesterday, the news of a firebombing of a school in a suburb of Taipei had replaced the China plane collision as the top news of the day on Taiwan television.

The people who measure Beijing best read it as a mild early draft of the story. Kao Yang, an official of the Defense Ministry in Taipei, told legislators that an intensified U.S.-China feud would be a boon to Taiwan, which makes it unlikely that Beijing would pursue a feud because bumpkin or not, the mainland Chinese are practical above all else. "If both sides take a hard-line position, it might have a positive influence on our arms talks. If they resolve it quickly, we're not sure yet whether that will be in our interests or not."

The test of George W.'s steel would come later, after the two sides patch up their quarrel and the wet noodles in his administration make their usual argument that weakness is more persuasive than strength and the United States should make the concessions, like a wronged but over-eager lover sending flowers after a spat. But rednecks and thugs nearly always make lousy lovers. George W. gets it.

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