The people speak

Online discussions in the People's Daily forum slam the U.S. -- but take shots at China, too.

By Max Garrone
Published April 3, 2001 6:42AM (EDT)

While a diplomatic conflict simmers over the fate of a U.S. spy plane and its 24 crew members in China, people are flocking to the online discussion forum of one of China's leading newspapers to argue about the case.

Online discussion boards may sound like a dubious source for information on international diplomatic incidents. But increasingly, they're the best way for reporters to get an immediate sense of what people are saying around the world. During the Kosovo conflict, the Web site for the anti-Milosevic news outlet B-92 became a major source of information for the international press. Similarly, in China, where information is at a premium, the Web is being mined for tidbits by major news agencies. Some experts are suspicious of Chinese-controlled Web sites, arguing that the government controls or manipulates much political discourse. But if nothing else, a roundup of what's being said on the Web serves as a useful supplement to the rest of the news trickling out of Beijing and Washington.

In its morning edition, the New York Times cited a post from the People's Daily Great Power Forum, the online discussion forum of the People's Daily Newspaper, urging the Chinese government to "Insist on pursuing the U.S. pilot for criminal responsibility ... Don't give the plane back -- it costs over $100 million to get one of these."

The Associated Press wasn't far behind, with an article citing a poster calling himself "East Don't" from the boards as writing: "We won this battle. Even though we lost a fighter jet and its pilot is missing, we have 24 war prisoners and a surveillance plane fully equipped with the most advanced radar and electronic equipment."

The incident is the topic of the day on the Chinese government-controlled People's Daily. Perhaps surprisingly, there are plenty of posts defending the American position and pointing out obvious discrepancies in the Chinese version of events. A poster named "Topher" picks apart the more basic points with his statement that "both sides admit that this incident occurred in international air space" and that "a lumbering EP-3 aircraft would not turn and ram a jet fighter."

But the majority of the posts are sympathetic to the Chinese cause, and read like a combination of propaganda and rampant Chinese nationalism.

"Glorious China" spoke for many on the board with his comment: "It is advisable that the Yankees make prompt apology for their impudicity [sic] to the Chinese people and compensate for the loss of property and life as necessary."

Others speculated that the Chinese pilot intentionally clipped the American plane in an effort to gain American technology and test the new American president' s mettle on the international stage. "KnightOfMalta" writes: "The reason is to get American technology and to provoke an incident over Taiwan and test American resolve."

The repartee heats up at points. A poster named "Ny" noted that "U.S. demands (not requests) the return of its plane" and went on to opine that "China must demand compensation from the U.S. for its loss of jet plane and pilot before releasing the U.S. plane and its crews." "Jedimaster" fired back, responding, "I think recognizing Taiwan's independence would be proper compensation for the PRC's violation of international law."

The invective heated up and pointed back to allegations of Chinese spying. One poster writes: "Three words: Wen Ho Lee. You spy too! Only we give you work and student visas."

One common idea among Chinese posters was that the American plane was flying over China when it was hit by the fighter plane. "Edisonone" was not alone in saying, "I understand your wanting to stand behind your country but imagine what their jobs (the crew of spy plane) are and why are they inside China instead of elsewhere in nearby countries!!!"

Despite the invective, most posters agree that the Chinese and American governments will just have to work the problem out. No one's talking about going to war. In fact, some see the incident as having a possible positive outcome: "edisonone" writes, "I like this -- it has a tendency of forcing people into a partnerships for peace instead of war!!!"

Other posters were not so eager to bury the hatchet. "RedBloodedAmerican's" message was deleted from the board but the subject line, "Chinese men have small penis," remained, proving only that idiotic flaming knows no international boundaries.

Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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