U.S.-China Relations in the 1990s


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

In the summer of 1995, Taiwan’s pro-independence president, Lee Teng-hui, delivered a speech at Cornell University in New York in which he insisted that Taiwan was an independent country. The Chinese government reacted angrily and, in a show of its anger, conducted extensive military exercises—including guided-missile tests—in the Taiwan Strait, not far from Taiwan itself.

Two King chess pieces standing on the flags of China and America.
The authors of China Can Say No believed that America wanted China to fail. (Image: fukomuffin/Shutterstock)

The U.S. Wants China to Fail?

Responding to China’s escalating military intimidation, the United States rattled a few sabers of its own, as President Clinton dispatched two aircraft carrier groups to the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait.

In the angry aftermath of this episode, a best-selling book appeared in Chinese bookstores, with the provocative title, Zhongguo keyi shuo bu—’China Can Say No’. Its defiant message was loud and clear: The United States must not take Chinese goodwill for granted and must treat China with much greater respect and dignity.

Citing the examples of the Yinhe incident and the U.S. aircraft carrier intrusions into the Taiwan Strait, the authors of China Can Say No argued that despite American talk about “constructive engagement”, the U.S. was really out to “contain” China, to clip its wings and prevent it from becoming rich and powerful. The United States wanted China to fail.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Growing Distrust between China and the U.S.

On both sides of the Pacific, the Sino-American military buildup in the Taiwan Strait fueled growing distrust. In the aftermath of the 1996 U.S. presidential election, Republican members of Congress began to accuse the Clinton administration of being soft on China. 

First, they charged the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign with accepting illegal campaign contributions from various Chinese special interests, including a mainland Chinese aerospace company, whose chief spokeswoman was the daughter of the former PLA general staff.

Shortly afterward, in 1998, a Taiwanese-American nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos National Weapons Laboratory, Dr. Wen Ho Lee, was dismissed from his job amid allegations that he had provided Beijing with the designs and codes for America’s latest nuclear warheads. 

A few months later, a Congressional investigation commission headed by Republican Congressman Christopher Cox, issued an explosive report alleging that China had been engaging in systematic nuclear espionage against the United States, espionage that resulted in the theft of top-secret design information on U.S. nuclear warheads, radiation weapons, delivery systems, and re-entry vehicles.

Learn more about the strategic role of the United States in Chinese affairs.

Tensions Rising among the Populace

Beijing bristled angrily at such allegations. But it wasn’t just the Chinese government that reacted strongly. Equally important, the Chinese street— the laobaixing—now turned distinctly negative toward the United States, as Chinese opinion polls showed a sharp rise in feelings of resentment and distrust.

In America, too, the atmosphere soured substantially, and a sudden spurt of provocative books attacking China appeared in the U.S. bookstores. Among some of the more exotic titles were: “The China Threat: How the People’s Republic Targets America”; “The Coming Conflict with China”; “Red Dragon Rising: Communist China’s Military Threat to America”; and, perhaps most scurrilous, “Year of the Rat: How Bill Clinton Compromised American Security for Chinese Money”.

Photo of Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin shaking hands
The presidential summits between China and the U.S. didn’t change public opinion polls on either side. (Image: David Scull/Public domain)

Presidential Summits

In an effort to limit the damage done to U.S.-China relations, Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin held two cordial presidential summits in 1997 and 1998, respectively. But warm presidential smiles, friendly words, and handshakes were not sufficient. 

Not even a joint announcement that the two countries had agreed to become “cooperative strategic partners”, coupled with a unilateral American pledge not to support Taiwan’s independence, was able to stem the rising tide of mutual suspicion.

On both sides of the Pacific, public opinion polls showed declining trust and goodwill.

Learn more about the U.S.-China relations in the 1990s.

Bombing of the Chinese Embassy

Things went from bad to worse in May of 1999 when an American “stealth” bomber, flying under the NATO flag in the Kosovo conflict in former Yugoslavia, accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Three Chinese journalists were killed in the attack, and twenty PRC embassy staffers were wounded.

The official American explanation for the mishap was that U.S. Central Intelligence officers had used outdated maps in selecting their bombing targets and that the building in question had previously been identified as a Serbian electronic air-support facility.

The American explanation was indignantly rejected by the Chinese government, which called the embassy attack “barbarous”.

Anti-American Protests

Massive anti-American protests followed, as students armed with rocks and bottles and crude Molotov cocktails demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Shortly afterward, Chinese newspapers began publishing a number of commentaries angrily accusing America of bullying others and deceiving the world about its hegemonic intentions. 

In the wake of the Belgrade embassy bombing and the anti-American demonstrations in China, opinion polls in the United States registered a dramatic, four-fold increase in the number of Americans who viewed China as a “serious” or “moderately serious” threat. By the turn of the new millennium, the revival of Chinese nationalism, along with China’s growing economic and military power, was a source of deepening concern in the United States.

Common Questions about the U.S.-China Relations in the 1990s

Q: What was the central message of the book China Can Say No?

The book China Can Say No conveyed a loud and clear message that the United States must not take Chinese goodwill for granted and must treat China with much greater respect and dignity.

Q: What step did the governments of China and the U.S. take to decrease tensions between their countries?

The Chinese government led by Jiang Zemin met with Bill Clinton in two separate presidential summits in an effort to decrease tensions. However, public opinion polls continued to show declining trust and goodwill in both the countries.

Q: What happened in the immediate aftermath of America’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in the Serbian capital of Belgrade?

The Chinese government was understandably furious and rejected the American explanation for the incident. There were massive anti-American protests, as students armed with rocks and bottles and crude Molotov cocktails demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

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