Beijing journal

An American student watches the not-so-spontaneous uprising against NATO and the U.S.

By S.h.

Published May 10, 1999 6:43PM (EDT)


Today I watched two buses sponsored by the Communist Youth League take student protesters from Peking University to the area near Jianguomen where the American and British embassies are. So I went down to Sanjiaodi, the bunch of bulletin boards that make up a "speech zone" (notice the lack of "free" -- this is the same area where a lot of Tiananmen protests happened) to see what was going on.

I knew the protests had to do with NATO's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The Chinese government and media had been stridently anti-NATO before this, and their reaction to the bombing wasn't exactly surprising. But it's also clear to me that there has been growing political tension about the upcoming 10th anniversary of Tiananmen and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. This anti-NATO protest has seemed like a good way for the Chinese to let off a lot of steam.

When I got to Sanjiaodi, it was turning dark, but there were a lot of people milling around, posting and reading posters, and otherwise talking and assembling. While some of the posters looked very student-made (big calligraphy on cheap paper, maybe a red or blue background), there was at least one really nice glossy poster that didn't look like the rest. It seemed like the government's attempt to boost this protest movement.

I bumped into some Chinese friends who warned me not to take pictures or talk to Chinese people, or else I'd look like a reporter, and get people in trouble. So I left and went to an Internet cafe to read the news on the web. Later I walked back to campus with another American, and this time, passing through Sanjiaodi, there was a lot more noise and people. Students had made a large banner, and went walking out of the south entrance of the university with it. In a sign of apparent official sanction, the usually half-open university gates were all the way open.

The crowd marched down through busy streets of the Haidian district, singing the Chinese national anthem and shouting things like "Down with American imperialism" and "Chinese people -- rise up!" I ran into a Chinese friend who warned me to go home. But I was hungry, and so my American friend and I stopped by a McDonald's to get a milkshake, and let the crowd pass us. When we caught up with it again, the crowd had reached People's University (another big university in Beijing) and joined some of its students in protest. About half the large group decided to march to the American embassy -- a 12 mile walk.

I was already amazed at the amount of "help" the marchers got -- lots of police directing traffic, with no attempt made to get them to disperse. Then suddenly nine big buses appeared on the Third Ring Road to shuttle the tired protesters to the American embassy. My American friend and I decided to skip the buses and walk the rest of the way.

It took two hours, so we'd missed a lot of excitement at the embassy when we finally arrived. Still, there were many hundreds of students still there at 2:30 a.m., shouting protests, lined up in a very orderly fashion far away from buildings. There were also lots of police and soldiers, who didn't try to break up the protest. My friend and I were tired, and left to rest our legs.


Today there was a mini protest outside of the foreign dorms, and a New China News Agency video team was roaming the hallways, looking for people to interview for the biased TV news. I went back to Sanjiaodi to see what was going down. There were even more banners and posters, and lots of people discussing and ranting in small groups.

People were talking crazy. Some guy was ranting that China could attack the American west coast, while an economics professor from People's University was talking about how America keeps China from developing out of fear it will overtake the U.S. because its people are so smart. Another big talker was a unique type I've seen a lot of in China: the military nerd. Military matters are important here. Bookstores always have a big military affairs section, there are several popular military magazines, and even a military affairs club at Peking University. These people are dorky, not the muscle-head that you'd expect in a big military fan.

At Sanjiaodi, Mr. Military kept telling me that the U.S. bombed the embassy on purpose, and he knew this because the bombs came from three different angles -- proof that it must've been planned. But the protest also drew Beijing's young and cool. Nick, my Australian friend, was talking to a long-haired Chinese guy who turned out to be Cui Jian, one of China's top rock 'n' roll artists.

After a while, I felt safe enough -- and frustrated enough -- to participate in the discussions. It's hard when somebody keeps telling you what "Americans think," when nobody you know thinks like that. Everybody kept on saying "Americans think." I told them what they really should be saying is "the U.S thinks or the American government thinks."

The official Chinese view on the embassy bombing is pretty straightforward. The U.S. did it on purpose, and it's a violation of Chinese sovereignty. The newspapers assume this, and the students do a good job of following the party line. The U.S. and NATO apology has not been widely reported.

The area around the embassies seemed well under control There were plenty of police and paramilitary forces to keep order, with signs with arrows that said "Walking Route" and pointed a windy road around the embassy district. Several places were very off limits, marked by the lines of policeman who would not let people pass. (On the other hand, the police were clearly not trying to break things up.) I did get lots of hard looks and I had to duck reporters, but things never got ugly. I'd hear people say things like "He can't be American, if so, why would he be here?" -- I was trying to pass as Australian -- and the ranks of police kept me feeling safe.

The American embassy itself was a little more volatile. Standing in front of the compound was not allowed, and the huge number of police kept the crowd flowing pretty well. The building was a mess, with the flag still left up, and the door open, windows broken, walls stained, and lots of tossed bottles and rocks all around. I heard the reports that Ambassador Sasser is still inside. Things were even more out of control near the British embassy, where people were still chucking rocks at the buildings.

I wondered what would happen if everybody knew America and NATO had apologized for the bombing? It would probably make little difference. The government is clearly using these protests to hype nationalism. After taking many pictures, my friend and I left, heading back for campus.

By S.h.


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