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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Common Cause, for Now

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BEIJING -- When the United States accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999, mobs here took to the streets and pelted the American Embassy with rocks. And when a U.S. spy plane made an emergency landing in China after colliding with a People's Liberation Army fighter jet this year, visiting Americans were accosted on the streets of Beijing.

So it is a little overwhelming to be stopped by strangers offering their consolations over the attacks on the World Trade Center. A student passing out flyers for an art exhibition near the Forbidden City asks, "Excuse me, are you an American? I was so sorry to hear about the situation in New York." A woman on a train catches your eye as you read China Daily's front-page stories on the attacks and offers a sympathetic look. A hotel clerk says, "New York, very bad."

As America reels from a brutal attack, it can at least count itself lucky that well-wishers are popping up even among normally hostile nations. (When terrorists blow up Israeli children in their strollers, the world tends to tsk-tsk and urge Jerusalem not to ruin the peace process by striking back at the killers.) Support for the United States has been, if anything, stronger in China's government-owned English-language press and television than in European media.

Taking its lead from President Jiang Zemin, China Daily avoided the temptation to score political points against U.S. policy in the Middle East or Bush's missile defense plan. In contrast, the Financial Times of London, while deploring the mass murder, suggested that the Bush administration's failure to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to stop assassinating terrorists might have sparked the attacks. (Oops, it now turns out the U.S. terrorists began training to pilot jet airplanes in 1996, long before Bush or Sharon were in office.)

At least some Chinese media had trouble shedding their communist-bred caution in coverage of difficult news. An hour-long news broadcast began on CCTV at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Beijing time -- just minutes after the American Airlines jet crashed into the first tower. But while viewers around the world were watching the fire, the second crash and the collapse of the towers live, CCTV instead aired spots about rural agriculture and Premier Zhu Rongji's visit to Russia. The announcers didn't even mention the carnage in New York and Washington.

Only after Jiang issued his late-night statement was CCTV's English-language station confident enough to show footage of the crumbling towers. On its opinion page Thursday, China Daily, which is never shy about pummeling America in print, ran an editorial headlined "Serious threat to world peace, civilization." An editorial cartoon depicted the Grim Reaper smashing an airplane marked "Innocent people" into a skyscraper.

There are political reasons for Beijing's unequivocal denunciation of the attacks. The government is fighting separatists in its largely Moslem Western province of Xinjiang, and it fears the 2008 Olympics could tempt terrorists. The man on the street, however, often has more personal reasons for his dismay over last week's terror. New York is the destination of many Chinese emigrants, and hundreds of millions more fantasize about stowing away on a freighter headed for the land of opportunity. Jiang hinted at such personal ties when he expressed concern about the safety of students and workers from the mainland, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.

On Thursday, China Daily published a story about an employee who was working in her office on the 33rd floor of the second tower at the time of the crash. Sun Lingling, who handles the paper's North American circulation, recalled the horror after the plane hit the building.

The story began: "Sun Lingling now knows the sound a free-falling body makes when it smacks against pavement. And though she'll try, she'll never forget the smell of charred skin hanging loosely off scores of faces."

After the jet thudded into the building, Sun fled through the smoky stairwell. On the 20th floor, firefighters charging up the stairs paused and asked her how many more flights they had to go before they reached the blaze.

The firefighters lingered long enough to let Sun and the others throw water on them, China Daily reported. She does not know if they ever made it back down to safety. Sobbing, Sun would recall, "All of us had the deepest respect for those firefighters."

America and China will always have divergent interests. But for the moment, they may have found a common cause.

Russell Working is a freelance correspondent based in Vladivostok.