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Beijing's Balancing Act

Friends and relatives of immigrants deported to Mexico hold a rally at St. Mary Catholic Church in Painesville, Ohio, Monday, May 21, 2007. (AP Photo/The Plain Dealer, Scott Shaw) ** MANDATORY CREDIT **
AP/The Plain Dealer/Scott Shaw
From the start, China's outrage over the U.S. Navy spy plane that collided with and downed one of its fighters has been a carefully calibrated exercise under the tight reins of Beijing.

While the Chinese government has sharpened its rhetoric, its handling of protests shows a more complex response.

For example, CBS News Correspondent Kimberly Dozier in Hong Kong reports that Chinese protesters tried to gather outside the American consulate there and outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing on Wednesday, only to be turned away by government troops.

Unlike the crisis over the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999 — a bombing which Washington called an accident, but not to the satisfaction of many Chinese citizens — the Beijing government is holding back the floodgate of demonstrations this time, hinting some room for compromise.

Yet at the same time, China's official rhetoric over the incident grew tougher as American diplomats visited the Navy plane's crew.


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CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen reports China's chief Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhu Bang Zao, lashed out at the U.S. on Tuesday, insisting that Washington admit blame for the incident in no uncertain terms.

"The U.S. started this. We are the victims here. I would like to remind you of that," he said. "The U.S. should accept full responsibility and apologize to the Chinese government and to the Chinese people."

And on state television on Tuesday night, Beijing time, China's President Jiang Zemin claimed that his country has evidence that the U.S. plane violated accepted flight rules when it hit the Chinese jet. Indeed, Beijing has said it wouldn't rule out the possibility that it might prosecute the American crew under Chinese law for violating its airspace and killing one its pilots.

Some in China's top leadership who oppose closer ties with the U.S. are portraying the collision as a deliberate, provocative act — a point of view that could shore up opposition to better Sino-American relations.

Another pressure on Beijing's leaders is rising nationalism within China, a force that the Communist Party seeks to tap and control into order to maintain its grip on the country amid internal government corruption, a roller-coaster global economy and the continuing campaign against the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

In any case, the American side is making no concessions to the official line out of Beijing.

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"I think our general outlook ought to be toward solving the problem, rather than working on blame," said Joseph Prueher, the U.S. Ambassador to China, on Tuesday.

Nevertheless, the official Chinese position is hardening, even if good relations with the United States are at stake.

"It depends on what kind of attitude the U.S. side takes," said the Foreign Ministry's Zhu.

Beijing's explanation for the weekend incident has been overflowing from every Chinese media outlet — newspaper headlines, television, radio and the Internet — a state-sponsored diet of coverage that's been pointing an accusing finger at the U.S.

One headline read: U.S. Reconnaissance Plane Crashes Into Our Fighter Jet.

A Chinese newscaster delivered the news that "it was America's fault…the American plane suddenly veered into a Chinese jet…and a Chinese pilot paid with his life."

"If China and the U.S. go to war, I'm behind my government 100 percent. We're no cowards," says one man on the streets of Beijing.

"I'm very angry," says another man. "This plane crashed into our plane on purpose."

Still, U.S. business interests working in China believe a wider rift between Washington and Beijing as a result of the spy plane incident is not a given.

"I certainly think that China and the United States — the two governments have a mature relationship, they're able to talk about issues when they arise. I don't think there will be a serious split," said Tim Stratford, chairman of the Amrican Chamber of Commerce, a business group in Beijing.

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