Protesters Trap U.S. Envoy in Beijing
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 10, 1999; Page A1
BEIJING, May 9 – Thousands of demonstrators massed in front of the U.S. Embassy for a second day today, trapping the ambassador and 13 other staff members as protests continued over the NATO attack on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
Ambassador Jim Sasser said he was a "hostage" of the protesters, who hurled rocks and debris at the building, while others attacked the British and Albanian missions and continued to demonstrate at U.S. consulates elsewhere in China. Sasser said he was unable to leave the premises because he didn't have adequate protection.
"You could hear the windows crashing and the glass going everywhere," said Sasser, who, unknown to the protesters, has been trapped inside one of the embassy buildings for the past two days. "Even when I tried to lie down on the floor for a couple of hours of sleep, I could still hear the chanting and rock throwing. It lasted all night."
Sasser, in a phone interview, complained that his wife and son had been isolated from him in another embassy building without U.S. Marine protection. He called on the Chinese government to provide him and his staff with protection to move from one building to another so he could be reunited with his family.
Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering said on ABC's "This Week" that U.S. officials have voiced their concern to the Chinese government and will continue to press officials about the embassy staff's safety.
"We are deeply worried about our people who are inside our embassies, who, if these crowds get out of hand, are going to be subject . . . to serious violence," he said.
In addition, President Clinton sent Chinese leader Jiang Zemin a letter of condolences over the accidental attack on Beijing's embassy in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital.
Several satellite-guided bombs struck the embassy, which was mistakenly targeted late Friday as NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia continued.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who met Saturday in Washington with Li Zhaoxing, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, also sought assurances that the staff would be protected.
Today's protests in Beijing took on a harsher tone than demonstrations Saturday. An American reporter was hit with a rock, other Americans were threatened and one was rescued from an angry crowd by concerned protesters. "I want to kill Americans," shouted Li Guangqiao, a 25-year-old graduate student, as he marched toward the embassy. "Kill the big noses!"
Attacks against U.S. diplomatic missions have already occurred in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenyang. In the southwestern city of Chengdu, protesters burned the residence of the U.S. consul general and pelted the consulate with rocks. "This hasn't been seen in 10 years," said a police officer outside the embassy in Beijing. "The masses are huge, and it's incited people's nationalist feelings." Asked if the police could lose control of the situation, he answered: "Yes."
Once the protesters snaked their way through the city to the front of the U.S. Embassy, demonstrators uprooted pavement slabs and hurled them at the embassy. They also tossed burning U.S. flags and flaming effigies over the compound's white iron gates, and launched three molotov cocktails.
Several Chinese tried to scale the fence surrounding the building but they were pulled back by police. Protesters shouted: "Take down the flag!"
Protesters have made four demands known: that U.S. flags be flown at half staff across the United States; that NATO immediately stop its bombing campaign in Yugoslavia; that the United States issue an open apology for the attack; and that NATO be dismantled.
But today, the protesters seemed to want something more violent. "Don't get Chinese mad," said one. "Remember the Korean War!" when Chinese and American troops fought each other in the early 1950s.
In a nationwide broadcast today, Vice President Hu Jintao said the government supports "legal protest activities," but "we must prevent overreaction."
Sasser, a former senator from Tennessee, has been holed up in one of the embassy buildings with eight Marines, two political officers, two State Department technicians and the embassy's regional security officer. The group is living on Marine meals-ready-to-eat, which the ambassador said he "could not recommend for long-term survival."
He said he had several tough conversations with Chinese officials over the security their police had provided. He went so far as to call Ambassador Li to ask for his help. Sasser was particularly incensed that his wife, Mary, and son, Gray, were under threat Saturday night in his residence.
"They started breaking windows in my residence last night," he said. "They had  to 400 people out there and we didn't have any Marines to protect them, just Chinese police. Today they knocked out a lot of windows. We tried to get some people out of there this morning to catch an airplane but they were turned back by a group of 20 protesters."
In his office, he said, the camaraderie helped him relax.
"There was a constant din of noise. You kind of get acclimated to it," he said. "After a point the stones would come through the window and bounce through the hall. You don't notice it after a while."
The ambassador said he was worried that the Chinese siege of the U.S. Embassy was "not going to be a salutary thing for the relationship or a boost for the relationship."
"It is one thing for a people to demonstrate in opposition to a government or a country's policy," he said, "but it is quite a different thing for them to destroy government property. This sort of thing is very poisonous to a relationship."
"We certainly can understand their hurt and anger arising out of this terrible, tragic accident in Belgrade," he continued, "but that was unintentional and we have apologized for that. But what's occurring now is to some extent intentional. It is intentional."
Sasser said he had been assured by the Chinese Foreign Ministry that the police and the People's Armed Police would be responsible for the safety of U.S. diplomats. But "there were instances today when it was very questionable as to if they could hold back the mobs," he said.
"We're fully prepared to evacuate if necessary," he said. Asked where the U.S. officials would go, he responded: "That's the $64,000 question."
Sasser was supposed to have left China last year, following Clinton's summit with Chinese president Jiang in June and July. He stayed on, partially because the Clinton administration could not find a replacement.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company