Beijing Spring

There were signs and scuffles as protests spilled into the streets, but once again, Beijing blew an easy chance to show a new style of sophistication. Where else in the world are citizens censored for showing support for their own government?

By Ron Gluckman/Beijing,China

SPRING BLOOMED IN BEIJING SUNDAY. The weather was warm, the sky a hue locals wistfully call blue. Off came winter coats. Up went banners with the excited banter of spring. "Give Peace Another Chance," "No War For Oil," and "Bush is a Moron - He has an Excuse."

  Around the globe, protests fill streets and suck every second of TV time to spare from bomb briefings. Everywhere, except the People's Republic of Caution, perhaps the sole nation opposed to the Iraq war that hadn't hosted rallies against it. Until Sunday, the last in March 2003, when official discretion was finally tossed to the wind and protests rocked Beijing. Sort of.

  Chinese are often uninformed about world events, alternatively due to censorship and indecision. Not so this war, which China opposed from the start. The media has obliged mightily.

  Crowds swarm corner newspaper displays to soak up the latest gore and most Chinese have been treated to their first view of something as earthshaking as bombing runs - live coverage on CNN, slotted into local newscasts for the first time.

  Hence, students can be excused the folly of thinking the time right for, if not Beijing Spring, at least a Spring Break from routine. For the first time, they were watching what the whole world was, and wanted to join in.

  Nobody imagined fighting in the streets; the Rolling Stones had already canceled plans for a revolutionary show this weekend. Still, campus and internet cafés alike were abuzz with anti-war chatter.

  Getting it right should have been a breeze. After all, not even the French have decried American Imperialism longer or louder. Chinese students had begged for weeks to rally against a war already condemned by Beijing. Talk about a no-brainer.

  For once in a long while, the People's Republic and its people were on the same side.

  Yet it went wrong. Ridiculously so. Protests were announced for several locations around the capital, but only one went off as planned. The rest ended in embarrassment - or worse.

  With a few arrests and lots of scuffles, all unreported by official media, Beijing's bloodless Sunday will probably prove most significant in impact upon a new generation of unlikely local rebels such as a mild-mannered engineering student called Paul. 

  "I never thought I would see this in China," he said with undisguised indignity. "The police are stopping us from saying what our own government says."

  Banners were hoisted Sunday morning at Ritan Park, where China's Emperor made sacrifice to the Sun God. A crowd of 200 gathered to march against the war, an United Nations of opposition: Greeks, Germans, Lebanese and Brits.

  Americans were on hand, along with Africans, Australians and Arabs. The only ones missing at China's first big political protest in years were the Chinese.

  In a Great Leap Backwards, this gathering was foreign-only, recalling those farcical days from not long ago when China maintained its comical foreign-only currency, shops and housing.

  At the outset, police read the Riot Act, a Chinese 10 Point Plan for Proper Protest. Nobody argued the ban on explosives, but eyebrows collectively arced at the restriction of Chinese. Shades of the World Trade Organization, it's protest protectionism.

  Foreigners marched, from the park past surrounding foreign embassies, holding signs in foreign languages, pausing in front of the residence of the American Ambassador to shout slogans like "No More War." 

  Then, they peacefully marched back to the park, packed the banners and headed to a nearby Starbucks.

  Not that Chinese weren't present, in the park and on the street. Two bikes colliding in Beijing draw bigger crowds than the Atlanta Hawks, so you can imagine the horde that would be attracted by a parade of foreigners, shouting, waving signs, surrounded by police.

  At the end of the official protest, the local one began. One elderly Chinese man told a reporter he supported America. "Traitor," shouted another, spitting with venom. "It's a disgrace for any Chinese to support this Imperialist invasion of a small, defenseless country."

  A mob formed, threatening the meek old man. "Criminal," hissed a granny, surely a former Red Guard All-Star. "You should be shot."

  After 15 minutes of non-stop abuse, police finally interceded. And led the American-supporter away.

  There were other slots designed for locals to let off steam, like at a staged event at Beijing University, a Chinese-only affair coincidentally held while the Ritan protest was underway.

  This was civil disobedience China's regime can stomach, civil and obedient, or seemingly so. No marching, no shouting, no banners. Just pictures of wounded Iraqis, and appeals for donations to help the refugees. While students like Paul seethed on the sidelines.

  Such is the situation in the modern Middle Kingdom. Talk is truly freer in China these days, but unrest remains a tool that Beijing unleashes less and less. It fears losing control, like in 1999, when government-orchestrated crowds grew to unruly gangs who trashed the US embassy.

  Yet this is neither 1999, nor 1989. Students are switched on, internet connected. Hence, the biggest anti-war rally Sunday wasn't organized by Beijing, except inadvertently.

  According to angry noise on the net, Li Ning and Tong Xiao Ji applied to lead a 10:30 a.m. march up Wangfujing, Beijing's main shopping street. Permission was refused, but they vowed to go ahead anyway.

  By 10 a.m., Wangfujing was packed. Protestors, shoppers and secret police. A banner went up just a block from Tiananmen Square, and suddenly Sunday no longer seemed under government control.

  Arrests were made, TV cameramen dragged to paddy wagons. As the crowd surged up Wangfujing, punk musicians passed out leaflets. "You cannot stop here," shouted police. "You have no permission."

  Some punks were hauled in, others retreated to MacDonald's. One said: "We heard about this on the internet and came to join the protest team." He wore a leather coat dotted with studs. His buddy sported a New York Knicks cap.

  Beijing's simmering season of discontent fizzled out at Chaoyang Park, where plans for the largest protest of the day were derailed when police suddenly moved the time forward.

  Only four dozen students heard in time and attended; a media mob twice as large awaited. Police cordoned protestors inside the park, the press outside. Reporters swarmed departing students; police pounced at any visible sign of protest, like signs or banners.

  "I don't know why the Chinese government treats us this way," said a Beijing student with shoulder-length hair, wearing a T-shirt with a huge finger on back, the word "Oil" on one side, "War" on the other. He kept trying to unfurl a "Give Peace A Chance" banner, as the police chased him away, waving batons. "They just want to shut us up."

  Too late for that, as Paul succinctly noted. He showed me the obvious evidence. From a satchel, he produced the battle plan for the banned Wangfujing march, complete with the slogans to be shouted (including a nostalgic variation of "Make Love Not War).

  "Everything is already on the internet," he noted.

  But there is a grand gap between virtual and reality. All day long, Paul lingered on the sidelines, at Beijing University, at Wangfujing.

  At Chaoyang, there was no more pause for this rebel. braving the police, he stepped into a crowd of reporters and pulled a handmade sign from his satchel: "The battle is not to the strong alone. It is to the justice, to the brave."

  The message was confusing, but that hardly matter. For Paul and a handful of other Beijing students, Sunday was graduation day. A new generation of disgruntled young rebels surfaced.

  Afterwards, pulse racing, Paul remained frustrated. "The views of the protesters are available for all to see. Why can they say what they want on the internet, but not on Wangfujing?" he asked, not waiting for an answer. "It's stupid. It makes China look stupid."

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been roaming around Asia since 1991 for a wide range of publications, including the Asian Wall Street Journal, which ran this in the Weekend Edition of April 4-6, 2003. This exclusive is a slightly expanded version of the printed piece.

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