Magazine article The Spectator

100 Deadly Flowers Bloom

Magazine article The Spectator

100 Deadly Flowers Bloom

Article excerpt

IT was, I believe, the late James Cameron who extracted the maximum humour from the Albanian romance with China back in the simpler days of the Sixties. `Isolated!' complained the Tirana telegraph clerks who refused to transmit his copy containing the offending adjective. Why, they were allied to the most populous nation on earth! The term, recalled Mr Cameron, was held to be atrocious.

The shade of that urbane foreign correspondent must have stalked the sylvan avenues of the Beijing embassy quarter in recent weeks. These days, Mr Cameron might not have been much of a media star but his prose was often coolly detached and his compassion never sugary. Above all he possessed a keen sense of tragic absurdity.

It is precisely the combination of the tragic and the absurd that has converted the Balkan crusade into a globalised war. Like a thesis composed by the `what-if school of historians, its unintended results connect Chinese students to Kosovar fugitives and manoeuvres in the Adriatic to naval strategy in the South China Sea. Far from casting down despots, it has granted a new lease of life to a decaying Leninist dictatorship - in Beijing.

Belgrade and Beijing once represented twin lodestars for leftists who wanted to believe that the communist project meant something finer than Soviet imperialism, although Mr Cameron was unimpressed, once writing that when the train pulled in to Belgrade it held for him all the dreary charm of arriving in Stockton-on-Tees. But China succumbed to the lure of foreign capital and Yugoslavia fell among warlords. Divided by their common lack of real ideology, their relations became irrelevant. Mr Blair and Mr Clinton have changed all that.

The Balkans suddenly loom large in the Chinese psyche. Albania has been consigned to the ranks of the treacherous. It is Yugoslavia that is 'isolated' no longer. Profuse and insincere manifestations of Sino-- Serbian friendship have blossomed like 100 flowers since Clinton's missiles struck the Chinese embassy. Three weeks later, the consequences have not abated. That must seem an awfully long time to Western leaders enslaved by the news cycle. They might bear in mind the answer of Zhou Enlai to an inquirer who asked his opinion of the effects of the French Revolution. It was, replied Zhou gravely, too early to say.

It is not too soon to conclude that the missiles delivered a boon to the Chinese leadership, just as it was bracing itself for the tenth anniversary on 4 June of its own slaughter of the innocents in Tiananmen Square. The powdered, androgynous features of Li Peng, contorted in a smile like a Chinese opera heroine, have dominated the state media, and outlined a harsh and entirely accurate analysis of why China and America could not be friends.

To witness this reptilian individual, the former premier and now head of parliament, capturing the popular mood is to comprehend that nobody in the Clinton administration, let alone in Downing Street, possesses the political acumen of the average desiccated Chinese statesman.

To prove the point, it was Mr Clinton's immediate urge - in the psychobabble phrase reported by the New York Times -- to `reach out' to his counterpart, Jiang Zemin. But septuagenarian general secretaries of the Chinese Communist party do not, as a rule, share the need of modern Americans for grief counselling. …

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