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The Bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, Reconsidered

When I was in Beijing during the protests in 1989, a middle-aged man came up to me and asked, “Couldn’t America send some B-52s here and…” and he made a swooping motion with his hand.

Ten years later, on May 7, 1999, the American bombers did show up.

Instead of showering freedom ordnance on China’s dictators, however, they dropped five bombs on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

As to why this happened, the United States has always declared it was an accident.

A lot of people in China believe otherwise and there is a good amount of evidence to support their view.

The bombing of the embassy was a wake-up call for the PRC leadership, which decided it urgently needed a doctrine and capabilities beyond its strategic nuclear deterrent to handle disagreements with the United States that might acquire a military dimension.

It was also a propaganda godsend for the regime.

Chinese demonstrators were back on the streets, but protesting against the United States instead of against the PRC regime’s deficiencies in Western democratic values.

Americans and the U.S. media had a hard time getting used to this unfavorable turn in some popular Chinese attitudes away from 1989 democracy-love, blaming the ill-feeling on the suppression of news of President Clinton’s apology.

In the July 2001 China Journal, Peter Hays Gries of Ohio State University analyzed letters and submissions to China’s Guangming Daily and characterized the protests as “genuine and understandable” and largely unrelated to unawareness of the presidential apology.

On the ten-year anniversary of the bombing, China Digital Times linked to an interview with a student who identified the bombing as the trigger for a sea-change in the worldview of at least some Chinese:

What do you believe has changed now in the attitude of young Chinese (like those who protested 10 years ago against the USA) towards America?

Over the past decade, I think the young Chinese have gradually dropped their illusion of the U.S. and begun to view it more objectively.

After reform and opening-up, to be more specific in the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese people began to know more about the outside world. The prosperity of the west attracted the young people so much that all of a sudden everybody wanted to go abroad. At that time, we had a popular saying, “Moon of the west is even more beautiful than that of China.” Experiencing the sharp contrast between China and the west, many Chinese people became critical of China, perhaps in a cynical way.

However, when the Chinese embassy was bombed, many people began to think: is this the kind of democracy and human rights that we want to pursue?

Post Iraq-war, it is difficult to remember the years when the United States effortlessly claimed the moral high ground.  But in 1999, I remember that I also discounted Chinese whinging about the Belgrade embassy accident.

Writing in 2001, Gries provides a reminder:

The demonstrations shocked the US media, which quickly pointed blame at the Chinese government for inflaming the protests.  A brief review of major US newspaper editorials of 11 May reveals a consensus view: the Chinese people were not genuinely angry with (innocent) America; they were, rather, manipulated by Communist propaganda that the bombing was intentional…The Washington Post declzared: “The Big Lie is alive and well in Beijing”…Such “state-supervised anger”, the Boston Globe declared, was neither genuine nor popular.  The “brutes in Beijing” were responsible for the Chinese people’s  mistaken belief that the bombing was intentional.

A contentious interview conducted by Jim Lehrer with the Chinese ambassador to the US, Li Zhaoxing, immediately subsequent to the attack, is enlightening for the cognitive dissonance provoked by Li’s refusal to share Lehrer’s confidence that the US would publicly and honestly sort out what was obviously just a regrettable goof.  Looking back at the interview through the perspective provided by the shameless mendacity of the Bush administration over the Iraq War, it is Lehrer and not Li who looks delusional and out of touch.

LI ZHAOXING: I’m saying that the Chinese people and the Chinese government are requesting a thorough investigation of the NATO missile attack on our embassy in Yugoslavia.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir. But my question is: why would you think that it would not be an accident or a mistake? In other words, why would you think– to repeat my question, why would you think that the United States would intentionally kill Chinese citizens in downtown Belgrade?

LI ZHAOXING: Ask your own people. Ask your own officials. Ask your own experts. If they ask themselves, seriously, honestly, do they really believe that this is simply a kind of mistake?

JIM LEHRER: Are you suggesting that that is not the intention of the United States, to do exactly what you– in other words, to conduct a full investigation and hold the people responsible for this?

LI ZHAOXING: We attach more to facts, rather than words. No matter how eloquent one could be.

In addition to his encounter with  Jim Lehrer, Li Zhaoxing received further instruction on American attitudes from another, less courtly source.

Gries passes on a report in the Washington Post in which Tom DeLay, the Republican whip in the House of Representatives, revealed to Li his own formula for managing US-PRC relations, one that did not depend on apologies:

I was on Meet the Press…right after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo [he meant Belgrade], and the [Chinese] ambassador was on before me.  And if you remember, he’s kind of an obnoxious fellow and he’s screaming and yelling about how bad the Americans were, and I had had it up to about here.  So he’s coming off the stage and I’m going onto the stage and I intentionally walked up to him and blocked his way…I grabbed [his] hand and squeezed it as hard as I could and pulled him a kind of little jerk like this and I said: “Don’t take the weakness of this president as the weakness of the American people”.  And he looked at me kind of funny, so I pulled him real close, nose to nose, and I repeated it very slowly, and said, “Do-not-take-the-weakness-of  this president as the weakness of the American people”.

I expect Li Zhaoxing recalled Mr. DeLay’s solicitude as well as Jim Lehrer’s amazed disbelief when he returned to Beijing to become China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

A tentative answer to Jim Lehrer’s query as to why the United States might take the dastardly step of bombing the Chinese embassy can be found in my articles from early 2007 on the Belgrade incident: the persistent rumor that attack was conducted to destroy wreckage of a US stealth fighter shot down over Serbia, which the Milosevic government had delivered to the PRC in gratitude for services rendered (or perhaps traded to the PRC in return for presumably safe and secure radio retransmission facilities from inside the Belgrade embassy for the Serbian military, whose communications network was a focus of NATO strikes).

The story that China might have acquired key Stealth technology from the crash in Yugoslavia acquired a lot of legs after China test-flew its first stealth fighter, the J20, in January 2011, as I wrote in Asia Times.

During the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) campaign against Serbia in 1999, an American F-117A stealth fighter was shot down. Some wreckage undoubtedly made it into Chinese hands. Slobodan Lekic and Dusan Stojanovic of the Associated Press (AP) reported on January 23:

“At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers,” says Admiral Davor Domazet-Loso, Croatia’s military chief of staff during the Kosovo war.

“We believe the Chinese used those materials to gain an insight into secret stealth technologies … and to reverse-engineer them,” Domazet-Loso said in a telephone interview.

A senior Serbian military official confirmed that pieces of the wreckage were removed by souvenir collectors, and that some ended up “in the hands of foreign military attaches”. [2]

The idea that the United States had not taken adequate steps to secure the F-117A wreckage and useful technology may have thereby found its way into enemy hands is apparently rather irksome to the Pentagon.

Elizabeth Bumiller transmitted the US official pushback in the January 26 New York Times article titled “US Doubts ’99 Jet Debris Gave China Stealth Edge”:

[I]t’s hard to imagine that a great deal of applicable and useful information could have been culled from the site,” said an Air Force official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about military intelligence. [3]

Interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly, even as this narrative of PRC military espionage cum trashpicking was advanced, I didn’t see anybody pursue the logical corollary: that acknowledgment that China had possessed Stealth wreckage buttressed the allegation that the US government might have bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in order to destroy the sensitive technology.

In reading my dissection of the Belgrade bombing, its myths and legends, the reader can draw his own conclusions about the context it provides for subsequent US-PRC confrontations and strategies and the attendant media hoopla.

A final prefatory note:

One element that contemporary readers might find hard to swallow is my assertion that the mission that destroyed the Chinese embassy was the only target selected by the CIA.

Well, that’s what George Tenet, Director of the CIA, said.  It is a mystery to me why he considered this revelation in any way exculpatory.

From the July 23, 1999 New York Times:

“It was the only target we nominated,” the director, George Tenet, said at a rare public hearing of the House Intelligence Committee.

After the strike on May 7, which killed three Chinese and wounded at least 20 others, the CIA decided it better go back to its usual business of spying, a U.S. official said Thursday. Reeling from its error, the agency almost immediately suspended other preparations it was making to forward additional targets to help NATO.

The Bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999

China’s first direct experience with satellite-guided munitions occurred on the night of May 7, 1999, when at least five GPS-guided JDAM bombs slammed into the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese nationals and wounding 20.

The JDAM used in the attack is a very successful and relatively inexpensive concept in ordnance by which dumb bombs are, as it were, sent to college, and equipped with a GPS-corrected guidance system that generates corrective adjustments to movable vanes after the bomb is dropped from a plane, enabling reported accuracies of within 13 meters.

The conventional, though implausible, narrative at the time of the embassy bombing was The Bomb was smart… But We Goofed!

In testimony before Congress in July 1999, George Tenet explained how they meant to bomb some logistics office of the Yugoslavian army, they used an outdated map, somebody did catch the error but the message didn’t get through, the system broke down, sooooooo sorry.

On October 17, 1999, the Sunday Observer, in cooperation with a Danish paper, Politiken, came out with what would seem to be a blockbuster report: that the United States had deliberately targeted the embassy in order to remove a key rebroadcast station directing the military activities of Slobodan Milosevic’s forces in their struggle to resist NATO forces.

I am embarrassed to admit that my Googling skills haven’t turned up a direct link to the article, but the Observer’s sister publication, the Guardian, ran a story summarizing the article’s conclusions.

As to why the Chinese government dared to take the provocative step of hosting a Yugoslavian military radio facility, the article speculates that Beijing cooperated with Belgrade in order to acquire data on U.S. military capabilities:

Why the Chinese were prepared to help Milosevic is a more murky question. One possible explanation is that the Chinese lack Stealth technology, and the Yugoslavs, having shot down a Stealth fighter in the early days of the air campaign, were in a good position to trade. The Chinese may have calculated that Nato would not dare strike its embassy, but the five-storey building was emptied every night of personnel. Only three people died in the attack, two of whom were, reportedly, not journalists – the official Chinese version – but intelligence officers.

The Chinese military attache, Ven Bo Koy, who was seriously wounded in the attack and is now in hospital in China, told Dusan Janjic, the respected president of Forum for Ethnic Relations in Belgrade, only hours before the attack, that the embassy was monitoring incoming cruise missiles in order to develop counter-measures.

According to the Observer, the behind the scenes U.S. attitude to the embassy bombing was: Mission Accomplished.

British, Canadian and French air targeteers rounded on an American colonel on the morning of May 8. Angrily they denounced the “cock-up”. The US colonel was relaxed. “Bullshit,” he replied to the complaints. “That was great targeting … we put three JDAMs down into the (military] attache’s office and took out the exact room we wanted …

This story died the death in the U.S. media (I only saw references to it in the English papers at the time) and, to its everlasting credit, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) took the matter up.

In an October 22, 1999 article, FAIR wrote:

So far, the reaction in the mainstream U.S. media has been a deafening silence. To date, none of America’s three major network evening news programs has mentioned the Observer’s findings. Neither has the New York Times or USA Today, even though the story was covered by AP, Reuters and other major wires. The Washington Post relegated the story to a 90-word news brief in its “World Briefing” (10/18/99), under the headline “NATO Denies Story on Embassy Bombing.”By contrast, the story appeared in England not only in the Observer and its sister paper, the Guardian (10/17/99), but also in their leading rival, the Times of London, which ran a follow-up article on the official reaction the next day (10/18/99). The Globe and Mail, Canada’s most prestigious paper, ran the full Reuters account prominently in its international section (10/18/99). So did the Times of India, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Irish Times (all 10/18/99). The prominent Danish daily Politiken, which collaborated with the Observer on the investigation, was on strike, but ran the story on its website.

FAIR and its supporters rattled a few media cages, and got dismissive replies from the New York Times and USA Today.

The Times’ Andrew Rosenthal characterized the Observer article as “not terribly well sourced”.

In its rebuttal, FAIR stated:

FAIR contacted journalists at both the Observer and Politiken. According to the Observer’s U.S. correspondent, Ed Vulliamy, its foreign editor, Peter Beaumont, and Politiken reporter Jens Holsoe, their sources included the following:

–A European NATO military officer serving in an operational capacity at the four-star level – a source at the highest possible level within NATO–confirmed three things: (1) That NATO targeted the Chinese embassy deliberately; (2) That the embassy was emitting Yugoslav military radio signals; and (3) That the target was not approved through the normal NATO channels but through a second, “American-only” track.

–A European NATO staff officer at the two-star level in the Defense Intelligence office confirmed the same story.–

Two U.S. sources: A very high-ranking former senior American intelligence official connected to the Balkans – “about as high as you can get,” according to one reporter — confirmed that the embassy was deliberately targeted. A mid-ranking current U.S. military official, also connected to the Balkans, confirmed elements of the story and pointedly refused to deny that the embassy had been bombed deliberately.

–A NATO flight controller based in Naples and a NATO intelligence officer monitoring Yugoslav radio broadcasts from Macedonia each confirmed that NATO’s signals intelligence located Yugoslav military radio signals coming from the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. When they informed their superiors, they were told that the matter would be handled further up in the chain of command. Two weeks later, the embassy was bombed.

–An official at the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency told the reporters that NATO’s official explanation, which involves a faulty map of Belgrade, is a “damned lie.”

Finally, the Times, still coasting on its Pentagon Papers reputation in those halcyon, pre-Judy Miller days, replied to one correspondent:

“There is nothing in the distinguished history of the Times — where reporters have risked their lives, been threatened with jail and indeed gone to jail to protect the public’s right to know things the government does not want to get out — to suggest that we would withhold such a story.”

Hmmm.

When weighing the credibility of the Observer report, it is also worth recalling that, by CIA Director Tenet’s own admission, of the 900 targets struck during the Kosovo war, the CIA was responsible for only one targeting package—the bombing that was ostensibly meant to take out an insignificant Yugoslavian paper-shuffling operation and ended up destroying the Chinese embassy’s intelligence directorate instead.

Another investigative report confirmed that, not only was the target selected by the CIA, the entire mission was flown by the United States outside of standard NATO channels (NATO, of course, was the vehicle for European and American intervention in the Kosovo conflict; it was not a U.S.-directed war).

This is not my day for coming up with direct links to original reporting, but I found a posting on Venik’s Aviation of what looks like an accurate transcription of a May 2000 article from Air Forces Monthly, a European publication, detailing the mission.

It delivers the goods on what actually struck the Chinese embassy (not “guided missiles” or “laser guided munitions” as other outlets reported):

In the early hours of May 7, 1999, a USAF B-2 Spirit bomber, escorted by EA-6B defence suppression aircraft and F-15C fighters, dropped three GPS-guided Joint Defence Air Munition (JDAM) bombs on the Chinese Embassy in the Novi Beograd district of Belgrade.

As to how the targeting “error” slipped by NATO:

It should be noted that, in an interview with the author, NATO spokesman Lee McClenny confirmed that the targeting information did not go through JTF NOBLE ANVIL, or any other NATO structure, in contrast to Tennet’s [sic] official public statements. Instead, the co-ordinates were passed directly from the CIA to Whiteman Air Force Base, the home of the 509th Bomb Wing, where it was programmed into the JDAMs. Mr McClenny asserted that the entire process had remained ‘Stateside’, hence the failure of NATO staff to ‘scrub’ the target to check its accuracy, authenticity and location.

When asked, the CIA again asserted that the story given by Tennet [sic] to the House Committee was true, but claimed that the targeting information went from the CIA to the Pentagon to be processed. The Pentagon was only prepared to say that “some of the F-117 and B-2 missions were used as ‘national assets’ and therefore did not pass through NATO command structures”, despite the requirement under the NATO charter to clear all missions carried out under NATO auspices with the NATO general council…

We can now bring some more recent, first-hand information to the mix.

China’s Ambassador to Yugoslavia at the time, Pan Zhanlin, has written a Chinese-language memoir entitled My Encounter with War .

Living in Belgrade during the NATO bombing campaign, Ambassador Pan became something of an expert on precision-bombing tactics, and he reports on the effect of the five bombs in detail:

The first bomb entered the side of the building at an angle near the roof and tore through to the first floor and detonated at a bottom corner at the dormitory, tearing a pit several meters deep. One of the fatalities and many of the injuries occurred here. The second bomb hit the middle of the roof and went through to the first floor auditorium, causing no fatalities but giving Ambassador Zhan food for thought by incinerating his office and melting the frame of his day bed. The third bomb hit the northwest corner and blasted through several floors, killing two people. The fourth bomb came in a window of the half basement, exploded, destroyed the embassy clubhouse and shattered the building’s structural members. The fifth bomb crashed through the roof of the ambassador’s villa. Fortunately for Ambassador Zhan, who was there at the time, it didn’t explode. Since B2s drop their bombs in even numbers to keep the plane balanced, there was speculation that perhaps a sixth bomb had also entered the basement; but it was never found.…

I leave it to structural engineers and ordnance enthusiasts to assess whether this damage is consistent with an assault of five JDAMs meant to destroy the entire embassy; a surgical strike to take out the military attache’s office; or the aftermath of a dud-studded fiasco.

Ambassador Pan is anxious to characterize the American attack as intentional and motivated by pure cussedness: to break the back of the Milosevic regime by demonstrating to its allies that diplomatic support was not only useless but positively dangerous.

He carefully if awkwardly debunks the scenarios that the embassy was bombed because Milosevic was sheltering or visiting there, or that it was rebroadcastingYugoslav military communications.

No reference is made to any electronic intelligence activities by China that might have provoked the strike.

Concerning the shootdown of the F117, Pan reports that the scuttlebutt in diplomatic circles was that the plane was located using the Czech Tamara anti-stealth system. His informants told him it couldn’t detect the Stealth aircraft, but that the passage of the plane through sensor coverage left a distinctive “hole” in the CRT display. The Yugoslavs noticed this anomaly and used it to unleash a barrage of 30 SAM missiles at the place where they guessed that the fighter would be, bringing it down.

There is a third possibility, in addition to the rebroadcast and Elint scenarios: the F-117 wreckage story.

And it has a radically different outcome.

The Chinese Internet is rife with urban legends concerning the Belgrade strike. Nobody regards it as accidental, and many Chinese seem willing to ascribe all sorts of shenanigans to the Chinese embassy that provoked the attack.

The most interesting scenario is one that the poster attributes to “a private encounter with a Chinese naval officer who was slightly tipsy”.

According to this informant, the Yugoslavian government had recovered the wreckage of the shot-down F-117 and sold key pieces of it to China. The navigation system, fuselage fragments with the Stealth coating, and high temperature nozzle components of the engine were spirited into the basement of the Chinese embassy. Unfortunately, there was a locator beacon inside the INU powered by a battery and, before the Chinese could discover and disable it, the U.S. military was alerted to the location of the F-117 fragments.

In this version of the story, at least, there is a happy ending for the Chinese. The U.S. attacked the embassy with a laser-guided bomb meant to penetrate to the basement and destroy the embassy and the F-117 prize, but it didn’t explode!

The wreckage made it to China (in the special plane Beijing dispatched to carry home the survivors and the bodies of the victims of the attack, according to other accounts).

In the reported words of the officer (“who spoke with tears in his eyes”):

“Although some of our people sacrificed their lives, we gained no less than ten years in the development of our Stealth materials. We purchased this progress with our blood and international mortification.”

“虽然我们有人牺牲了,但是我们隐型材料的研制进度一下提高了十年都不止,这种进步,是以血和国际上的屈辱换来的”–他流泪

This is an interesting story.

In certain respects—the laser-guided part and the basement stash—it conflicts with more credible reports.

The embassy’s sub-basement, which served as an all purpose cafeteria, recreation center, and bomb shelter—an unlikely hidey hole for F-117 parts–was hit once, possibly twice, and it seems unlikely that anything could have been recovered from there.

But conspiracy theorists can draw solace from Ambassador Pan’s description of the four cases of “important state materials” that two brave embassy workers ran up to the fifth floor of the burning embassy to extract. Pan stated:

他们知道,这东西比生命更重要

“They knew these materials were more important than life.”

Standard-issue cypher equipment and secret files?

Special Elint monitoring equipment?

Or the crown jewels of America’s Stealth program?

I lean toward the third explanation, because glomming onto some secret airplane parts and then sneaking them out of a burning building is the kind of low tech triumph that fits in with my sense of China’s capabilities and interests inside Yugoslavia at the time.

The United States may have felt that by purchasing the wreckage, China had crossed the line from diplomatic support for Milosevic and conventional military-attache espionage to a more overt intelligence alliance with Yugoslavia in a deeply sensitive area of U.S. military technology, and needed to be taught a lesson.

I also wish to explore a pyschological element, which perhaps affects China’s outlook to this day.

You can see hints of it in the F 117 in the basement story. It has a touching, almost child-like wish-fulfillment element: the evil empire destroyed our embassy but we escaped with the plans to the Death Star!

The embassy bombing was quite traumatic to China.

However, when the attack occured, triggering official and popular anger within China, the West was disbelieving, dismissive—and defensive.

It was considered rather churlish of the Chinese to intrude their crude and manufactured nationalistic outrage into our “good war” narrative of the Kosovo conflict by trying to make political capital out of our honest mistake.

Today, with further information on the attack and the benefit of perspective, it is difficult to dismiss the shock the Belgrade bombing inflicted on the Chinese.

Post 9/11, Ambassador Pan’s description of the attack is depressing familiar, and more difficult to disregard.

Pan’s plodding prose reawakens dark memories of our own as he conveys the shock and fear as the embassy explodes into flames, “the loudest sound I ever heard”. Survivors found the stairwells blocked by rubble and fire and desperately improvised escapes down the exterior of the building using knotted drapes. Pan saw his friends and colleagues stagger from the ruins of the embassy dazed and bloody, crying out for help.

Amid the chaos everybody ducked in fear of a follow-up attack as NATO bombers thundered overhead (May 7 was one of the busiest nights for aerial bombing). Then came the frantic ad hoc attempts to rally the survivors, account for the living, and search for the missing.

First responders were at first unable to enter the compound because the electric gate was disabled when the bombing cut the power; ambulances race up to the shattered structure with sirens howling to rush away the injured willy-nilly; embassy staffers mounted a frantic search through the local hospitals for the injured.

Finally, there was the extraction of the dead, consoling of the wounded; the grieving; and the defiant patriotic oration.

Again viewed through a post-9/11 lens, Pan’s account also paints a picture of a privileged elite that has been stripped of the illusion that it is immune to attack, and realizing with anger, shame, and disgust that at that moment it is helpless, vulnerable, and unable to retaliate.

Regardless of U.S. motives for bombing the Belgrade embassy or what treasures of military intelligence the Chinese were able to save from the wreckage, if anything was needed to focus Chinese attention on its vulnerability to US attack, getting its embassy, intelligence directorate, and military attache blown up in Belgrade probably did it.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.