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In Confrontation Over U.S. Spy Plane, China Keeps Protesters In Check, For Now

BEIJING (April 6) -- The lone protester outside the U.S. Embassy had scrawled just a few angry lines on his poster when Chinese police led him away.

``Give us back our Chinese pilot,'' the young man wrote. ``Blood debts must be repaid in blood.''

In the confrontation with Washington over a U.S. spy plane, Beijing is taking care for now to manage public anger. Four people tried to put up protest posters outside the U.S. Embassy on Thursday -- and police led them quietly away.

It was a far cry from the support the government gave to tens of thousands of protesters who besieged the U.S. mission after NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999. Then, authorities bused protesters in and police set out signs showing them which way to march. They were allowed to throw rocks and bottles of ink at its walls.

This time, China is keeping public anger confined to the virtual worlds of the Internet and state-controlled media. State TV has for two days broadcast footage of angry citizens condemning the United States. Some read from cue cards. All hew closely to the government line: the United States is at fault for the collision Sunday between the U.S. Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter.

The Chinese pilot is missing, feared dead. China insists that Washington apologize and is holding the 24 crew members of the U.S. plane that made an emergency landing.

Without a nod of approval from the government, only a few Chinese appear ready to take their anger to the streets.

Without fanfare, the lone protester knelt down opposite the U.S. Embassy's iron gates, rolled out a sheet of paper, pinned down its corners with stones and started to scrawl.

``We don't want American money, we want dignity,'' he wrote.

By time two police officers walked over, the poster was nearly covered. They led him to a waiting van and drove away. A few hours later the man came back. He wouldn't give his name but said he was a worker and that the police asked him a few questions before letting him go.

``If China is pushed into a corner, it will fight back,'' he told a reporter.

Police also detained three other men who put up posters on utility poles. Police took down the posters, which showed a boot walking on China's red flag and the words: ``The Chinese people cannot be trampled on.''

Apparently to forestall any protests, police had tightened security near the embassy by midweek and guards questioned passers-by.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sun Yuxi, said Thursday that China would protect the safety of foreign embassies. He noted that Chinese can only protest with official permission.

Chinese leaders fear that public anger could run out of control, threatening their rule and relations with Washington. But by managing public anger and giving the impression that it could boil over, the communist government may be trying to add weight to its demands for an apology. The White House has refused to apologize, saying the plane was in international airspace and did nothing wrong.

``The U.S. side must apologize'' the state-run Guangzhou Daily newspaper blared in its front-page headline.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's expression of regret Wednesday for the missing Chinese pilot came too late to make most Chinese papers. The Beijing Evening News, an afternoon paper, did not report Powell's comments in its Thursday editions.

Instead, newspapers featured articles - likely to heighten public emotions - about the missing pilot's wife and 6-year-old son.

``Wang Wei, our son and I are waiting for you,'' they quoted his wife, Yuan Guoqin, as saying.

Commentary in online chat rooms was indignant. Writers heaped scorn upon U.S. demands for the return of the plane and crew.

Web sites are an increasingly popular forum for public discussion in China, though carefully monitored by censors who remove comments that the government doesn't want. In addition, it isn't clear whether the government, which uses the entirely state-run media to spread its views, doesn't also plant comments online to influence discussion. But the fact that comments were not deleted suggested that censors did not consider them objectionable.

``We lost a hero and a fighter jet. However, we've also got 24 killers and a surveillance plane. The U.S. should be more worried than us,'' one surfer, identified as Wang Jx, wrote on the bulletin board run by elite Fudan University in Shanghai.

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