BEIJING, Sept. 13 -- While average Chinese routinely approach Americans to offer condolences for Tuesday's terrorist attacks, many others in their offices, schools and Internet chats have voiced satisfaction at what they describe as a well-deserved blow against U.S. arrogance.
The government, with a carefully calibrated official reaction, has done little to discourage those who rejoice at seeing the United States taken down a notch. Chinese authorities have not ordered government buildings to fly flags at half-staff, for instance, and the government's own statements have left diplomats and scholars feeling that the leadership is worried about appearing too pro-American.
"Our response wasn't even as warm as Cuba's," said a government expert on foreign policy. "That's sad."
Shi Yinhong, head of the international relations department at People's University, said he believed that China's "silent majority" is supportive of the United States. The problem, however, is that backing the United States these days is unfashionable and potentially dangerous.
President Jiang Zemin is facing intense criticism from Communist Party conservatives for a speech he made on July 1 in which he offered party membership to Chinese capitalists. Chinese sources said that as a result, Jiang is wary of appearing too sympathetic to the United States.
In a phone call with President Bush on Wednesday night, however, Jiang offered to join an international fight against terrorism, the New China News Agency reported. During the conversation, Bush confirmed he will take part in the Oct. 20-21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and visit Beijing afterward as planned, China's vice foreign minister, Wang Guangya, said at a news conference.
The state-run press gave the disasters in New York and Washington prominent front-page play for only one day. By today, Beijing Youth News, the most popular newspaper in the capital, relegated the story to inside pages and focused its reports on the concern expressed by Chinese leaders for Chinese citizens who may have been killed in the attacks. The People's Daily, the Communist Party organ, played the story today among other international reports.
China's security services, usually quick to suppress the Internet when it is used for political purposes, have tolerated an avalanche of postings lauding the attacks on message boards. An executive at Sina, China's biggest Internet portal, said his company has received no guidance from China's police about censoring the Web.
Ground zero for the battle between China's anti-American groups and those who condemn the attacks has been bulletin boards at the country's two most prestigious universities, Beijing University and Tsinghua University. So far, anti-American screeds have won hands-down.
"We've been bullied by America for too long!" said one typical message posted on the electronic bulletin board of Beijing University. "Finally, someone helped us to vent a little."
"I'm happy not because I support terrorism," said another. "I'm happy because I hate America."
"I weep for the cold-blooded Chinese," came one of the few opposing responses.
Shi and some other scholars and citizens have said they were unnerved by the reaction of some of their compatriots. "It seems as if people don't really understand what happened in New York," said a Chinese journalist, adding that some people in her newsroom cheered when news of the attack broke. "They are just happy that America is facing a tragedy."
China has approached the disaster with a complicated mix of emotions and historical baggage, according to Shi.
The May 1999 bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade by U.S. warplanes, which killed three Chinese inside, is still fresh in many minds here, as is the collision between a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter on April 1 and the subsequent death of the Chinese pilot.
"Many Chinese look at the disasters in New York and Washington and think they are somehow equivalent with what happened to us," Shi said.
More broadly, he said, the attacks come at a time when anti-American feelings are high. With the collapse of communism as an ideology, China's government has embraced nationalism and nationalist causes in its search for new legitimacy.
"The thinking goes like this: Because the United States is arrogant, you deserve your fate," Shi said.
Finally, he and others added, more than 50 years of living under the rule of a Marxist-Leninist party has contributed to an attitude in which radical acts, including terrorism, can be tolerated as a way to reach political goals.