The Media Today

NATO bombed a Chinese embassy. Twenty-five years on, the battle for the narrative continues. 

May 14, 2024
An unidentified man lays flowers at the fence of the destroyed Chinese embassy in Belgrade Sunday May 16, 1999. The embassy was hit by NATO air-strikes on May 8, 1999, killing three people working at the embassy hit by cruise missiles. (AP PHOTO / Darko Vojinovic)

Last week, Politika, a storied newspaper in Serbia, published an op-ed by Xi Jinping, the president of China, who was visiting the country on a European tour in between trips to France and Hungary. Most of the article focused on the “ironclad friendship” between China and Serbia—a free-trade agreement; the popularity in China of Serbian honey, wine, and meat; the time that Nikola Jokić, the Serbian NBA star, “personally cheered on players of Chinese rural basketball games”—but toward the end, the tone shifted as Xi recalled an incident, twenty-five years ago to the day, in which NATO forces bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, killing three Chinese journalists. “This we should never forget,” Xi wrote. “The Chinese people cherish peace, but we will never allow such tragic history to repeat itself.” China and Serbia’s friendship, he continued, was “forged with the blood of our compatriots.”

Various Western outlets seized on Xi’s reference to the bombing: Radio Free Asia called it a “gloomy turn” in his European tour; Politico said that he had “jabbed” the West; the Financial Times that he had “lashed out” at NATO. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry used even stronger language while echoing Xi’s message, decrying the bombing as a “barbaric atrocity.” Gabriel Escobar, a US diplomat, hit back, describing the timing of Xi’s visit as an “unhelpful” attempt to “increase tensions between Serbia and the rest of the Western community.” The US “has said that the bombing of the Chinese embassy in 1999 was an accident,” Escobar added. “We’ve apologized. I believe we’ve actually even paid reparations to the families.”

Xi’s reference and any resultant tensions soon dissipated as a contemporary news story. But they scratched the surface of a historical wound that has never fully healed, and that remains relevant in an age of tense competition between China and the US and its allies. And, even beyond the identities of the victims, Xi touched on an episode freighted with contemporary relevance for journalists, one that points to enduring lessons about the fog of war, official secrecy, and competing geopolitical narratives—and what happens when they calcify over time. 

In March 1999, NATO launched an aerial campaign against the regime of Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian strongman and president of what was then Yugoslavia, aimed at stopping Serbian forces from massacring ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The bombardment was not authorized by the United Nations Security Council and was controversial from the start. (One supporter turned critic of the NATO campaign was the then-journalist Boris Johnson, who wrote in his newspaper column, “War is stupid. War is hell. But never has there been a war so stupendously incompetent in matching methods to aims.”) On April 23, as the bombing intensified, NATO hit the headquarters of Serbia’s state broadcaster. Officials justified the strike on the grounds that the broadcaster was an arm of Milošević’s “propaganda machine.” Sixteen people were killed.

Then, on May 7, a US bomber unloaded on China’s embassy in Belgrade. US and NATO sources were quick to express (with varying degrees of contrition) that the bombing was an accident; the alliance had intended to strike a suspected arms-supply facility, officials suggested, but had used maps that were out of date. China, for its part, erupted in fury, including via its state media; meanwhile, protesters took to the streets in the greatest numbers since the government brutally suppressed the Tiananmen Square uprising a decade earlier. Eventually, tempers cooled. President Bill Clinton publicly apologized and dispatched an official to offer a detailed accounting of what had gone wrong. George Tenet—the director of the CIA, which, unusually in the context of the NATO campaign, had selected the target for the strike—went before Congress, where he said, among other things, that the embassy hadn’t looked like a diplomatic building from the outside.

But this claim didn’t sit right with Jens Holsøe, a journalist for the Danish newspaper Politiken. He began digging into the incident, and a few months later published a bombshell investigation—in partnership with The Observer, the sister paper of The Guardian in the UK—alleging that the embassy strike had in fact been deliberate; the two papers claimed, citing “senior military and intelligence sources in Europe and the US,” that Western officials had found out that the embassy was being used to transmit communications on behalf of Milošević’s army. Prominent politicians trashed the story—Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state, called it “balderdash”—but The Observer doubled down in a follow-up piece, based on further interviews, that made a number of specific claims about the bombing and its level of precision.

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Back in the US, media critics took the New York Times and other major outlets to task for not picking up on their European counterparts’ reporting. Other observers suggested that the reporting didn’t pass the smell test. Steven Lee Myers, then a Pentagon correspondent at the Times (who still works for the paper today), was among those unpersuaded by The Observer’s sourcing. Months down the line, he published a detailed investigation of his own, based on thirty interviews and leaked documents and spurred in part, he told me in an email, by the fact that “the Pentagon and NATO had not been very forthcoming about how this could have happened.” Myers found no evidence that the bombing was deliberate, but did identify “a broader set of missteps” than officials had acknowledged; the incident, he wrote, “resulted from error piled upon incompetence piled upon bad judgment in a variety of places.” After he requested comment, Tenet publicly disciplined seven CIA employees, one of whom was fired.

Myers told me that no other journalist has since been able to “match the thrust of the assertions” put forward by The Observer and Politiken. “I would never rule out that more information might someday emerge—first draft of history, and all that,” he said. “But so far none has that would fundamentally change the narrative of a foolish, even grossly negligent mistake, as far as I know.” Holsøe and John Sweeney, who worked on the story for The Observer, did not return my requests for an interview, but as recently as 2019, they told the BBC that they stood by their work. “This was, and always will be, a murky story,” Sweeney said.

This murkiness extends, perhaps, to the identity of the victims of the bombing. One was Shao Yunhuan, a correspondent for the Chinese state news agency Xinhua; the other two were Zhu Ying and Xu Xinghu, a married couple who worked for Guangming Daily, a newspaper affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party. According to a Washington Post story in the aftermath of the bombing, Xu had been working on a series of reports, titled “Living Under Gunfire,” in which he chronicled daily life in Belgrade under NATO bombardment, sometimes with a dash of humor. Subsequently, both The Observer story and Myers’s in the Times noted suggestions that the three journalists were in fact intelligence agents. A US official told Myers that they had learned after the fact that the embassy was China’s “major collection platform” for intelligence in Europe. “One could say it was a silver lining to the bombing,” the official said, “but it was not deliberate.”

Myers told me that it’s “important to understand the indistinct line between journalism and intelligence gathering in the Chinese state media apparatus.” (He subsequently served as the Times’ Beijing bureau chief.) “I don’t think we’ll ever know exactly the official status of those killed,” he added, “but I’m also not sure it matters significantly to the narrative. Xi’s point in his article last week was that NATO should not have resorted to force against Serbia in any case.” 

Indeed, to this day, the bombing remains a source of grievance for many officials and ordinary people in China. In the 2021 book How Nations Remember, the academic James V. Wertsch recalled discussing the incident with both US and Chinese students in 2014; the former knew little to nothing about it, whereas the latter were all aware of it and maintained that it was a deliberate attack. “It is almost as if a clear gulf exists separating 300 million Americans from 1.3 billion Chinese when it comes to the truth of what happened,” Wertsch concluded.

Every year on the anniversary of the bombing, Chinese representatives mark it on the site of the embassy, which is now a Chinese cultural center located on Serbia-China Friendship Square. Serbian officials join them. In that country, the bombing fits neatly into the narrative that the wider NATO campaign was illegal and unjust, Stefan Vladisavljev, program director at the Foundation BFPE, a Serbian nonprofit, told me. The embassy bombing might not be the first thing that people mention when discussing the alliance between China and Serbia, “but when you start digging deeper, it plays a significant role in creating a special connection,” he said. And the NATO campaign as a whole remains “one of the reasons why anti-Western and pro-Russian or pro-Chinese sentiment and narratives are doing so well in Serbia.”

These narratives and the official Chinese-Serbian relationship have increasingly stretched into Serbia’s media landscape, much of which, as I wrote in 2022, has come under the control of President Aleksandar Vučić (who, as it happens, was information minister under Milošević at the time of the NATO campaign). Vladisavljev and others have noted that outlets owned by or friendly toward the Serbian government have contributed favorable coverage of its growing ties to China; meanwhile, Chinese state-controlled media have increased their own footprint in Serbia and had their work amplified by domestic outlets. The International Federation of Journalists concluded in 2021 that “unlike other countries, where China goes to great lengths to manipulate coverage through content sharing agreements and media procurements, in Serbia the government has decidedly controlled the narrative for them.”

After raising the bombing anniversary in his op-ed last week, Xi did not visit the cultural center that stands on the site of it—a move, some observers suggested, to avoid overly inflaming anti-US sentiment. Representatives of Chinese media did find time to sign cooperation agreements with various Serbian media entities, in Vučić’s press service but also in the public and private media sectors. Vladisavljev told me that the deals will likely lead to the sharing of content, and perhaps even its joint creation. “One might presume, when you have joint creation of content, then you need to also adjust the narratives between two sides,” he said.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, The New Yorker published a story, by Rachel Aviv, reexamining the case of Lucy Letby, a British neonatal nurse convicted of murdering seven babies. Readers in the UK (myself included) found that they were unable to access the story online; a spokesperson for The New Yorker told me that the magazine “limited access” to the article for UK-based readers in order to “comply with a court order restricting press coverage of Lucy Letby’s ongoing trial”—although, “as there is one print edition of The New Yorker worldwide, subscribers in the UK will receive the same copy as everyone else.” As Press Gazette’s Bron Maher notes, Letby’s case has been “incredibly complex” for journalists to report, due in part to significant restrictions on coverage of UK courts.
  • Also yesterday, Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former fixer, testified in Trump’s hush money trial, coming face to face with his former boss in what the Times described as “an only-in–New York collision of spotlight-seeking showmen, bombastic personalities expert in operating the twin engines that propel the city: media and money.” Cohen testified to his past work bullying the press on Trump’s behalf and to Trump’s direct knowledge of the scheme to “catch and kill” Stormy Daniels’s claims of an affair prior to the 2016 election. Meanwhile, the Daily Beast spoke with Isabelle Brourman, an artist who is sketching the courtroom scene with both “abstraction” and “journalistic diarism.”
  • Writing for The Intercept, Seth Stern, of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, warned that a bill empowering the treasury secretary to strip “terrorist supporting” organizations of their nonprofit status—which recently passed the House and is likely to be considered by the Senate—could be weaponized to crack down on nonprofit news outlets whose reporting on the war in Gaza offends US politicians. “There’s no reason to believe the press is exempt from overreach,” Stern argues, pointing to recent calls for major outlets to be investigated over photos that they bought from freelancers in Gaza.
  • Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist in China who was jailed after documenting the early days of the pandemic, was due to be freed yesterday—but her whereabouts remained unknown, raising concerns among some of her supporters. “In China, journalists detained for their work often remain under detention or surveillance even upon completion of their prison terms,” Reporters Without Borders said. “They will probably try to detain her in a secret location, or keep her out of eyesight for some time.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.