An article by: Francesco Sidoti
Summit between Aleksandar Vucic and Xi Jinping in Belgrade.

During the Kosovo war, on the night of May 7-8, 1999, the Chinese embassy in the Serbian capital Belgrade was burned down by American bombs. The bombing killed three people and seriously injured twenty others. The strike was deemed “deliberate” and directed against those who openly opposed the war in many places and in many ways. During his recent trip to Europe, arriving in Belgrade exactly on the twenty-fifth anniversary of that bombing, Chinese President Xi Jinping recalled it with a letter to the Serbian newspaper Politika. Xi Jinping, in particular, wrote: “The friendship between China and Serbia is forged by the blood of our compatriots. They will remain in the common memory of our two peoples.”

This bombing represents a breaking point because, along with other “incidents” (such as the spy plane story on Hainan Island two years later), it seemed not only a clear warning of the narrow limits of China’s completely subservient relationship with the West, but a method of retaliation that was unrivaled in dealing with other countries that occasionally failed to comply with NATO directives.

Wars and racism

These “incidents” were believed to denote specific disrespect for the lives of other people, deeply motivated by racism. There was no shortage of precedents. In addition to frequent lynchings in the 19th century, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was written specifically to keep the Chinese away from the borders. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act (which had been in effect for decades) established quotas and the overall limit on immigration to the United States, but completely excluded the Chinese. Promulgated with the apparent motivation of protecting against “the influx of foreign blood,” the law was approved with the full support of eugenics associations and the Ku Klux Klan. The Chinese and Japanese shared the same contempt.

War and racism have demonstrated more than one connection. Napalm was invented as the culmination of Western military chemistry at Harvard University in 1942 and was used in Italy and Germany, with imprisoned German soldiers becoming the first guinea pigs in observing the effect. Afterward, famed war photographer Lee Miller Penrose took photographs that were deemed so horrifying that their publication was banned for decades; they paid her back by allowing her to widely and for the first time publicize the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau.

In Japan, napalm was used unsparingly. Since late 1944, thousands of napalm-filled bombs have fallen on 67 Japanese cities. The last bombing of this type occurred after Hiroshima. Although Japan’s surrender was notified through the Swiss government, Truman still decided to use the atomic bomb as a means of pressuring Stalin. On the ashes of the cities, Emperor Hirohito signed an unconditional surrender act on the night of August 9, which was read personally over the radio on the 15th to dispel any doubts.

The aftermath of a napalm bombing in Japan in 1945

American bombing of Japan

Things weren’t very subtle then; Edwin Reischauer, a major American orientalist, explained why Kyoto was saved from the atomic bomb: Henry L. Stimson, then Secretary of War, honeymooned there and loved it.

The most famous of the attacks on Japanese cities was on the night of March 9, 1945, when more than 300 B-29 Superfortress bombers took off with the primary target the several-square-mile Shitamachi district of Tokyo, characterized by high density of working-class families. While the first raids targeted factories and military installations, subsequent bombings were aimed primarily at civilian population. These were traditional houses made of wood and papier-mâché, built to withstand a possible devastating earthquake like the one in 1923; the neighborhood was chosen for this reason: according to Masahiko Yamabe, it is easy to burn. Japan was now on its knees; Japanese fighter jets could offer no resistance. The bombings were systematic, prolonged, and unimpeded. An infinite number of incendiary and fragmentation devices were dropped. One-fifth of Tokyo turned into a smoking barbecue of bodies melted into white feces of napalm.

The firestorm wiped out tens and tens of thousands of people during the three-hour raid. The fires emitted a blinding light visible at a distance of tens of kilometers. At dawn the next day, Koyo Ishikawa’s photographs immortalized the carnage of burned bodies – fleshless skeletons that looked like blackened and burned mannequins, some larger, some smaller, huddled together. Given the impossibility of any identification, they were piled in huge mass graves.

In 2012’s The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell listened again to the airmen of the time: they said there was a “universal feeling” among American forces that Asians were “subhuman” or “yellow monkeys.” The then commander-in-chief admitted: “Killing the Japanese didn’t bother me much… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”

Aviators said the rising currents brought back the smell of meat that was melting and roasting under the hot napalm below. On the way back, when the B-29s landed, specialized crews set about fumigating the planes with special solvents – to dispel the disgusting smell of fried human meat left clinging to the fuselage metal.

The odor was so strong that as it rose from the ground to the sky, it soaked the fighter planes, resisting the drafts during the flight back to base.

In short, Belgrade still smells of the West today. Xi Jinping remembers it well, and he’s not the only one: more than one table is set.


Francesco Sidoti