»  National Review Online

November 10th, 2003

  Eyewitness Account of a Disturbance in China

[Because I often write about China, I get e-mails from people in that country. Around half are from foreigners living and working in the People's Republic, typically teaching in colleges and universities. Here is one I got at the beginning of November 2003 from such a college teacher. She is not a native speaker of English, so the grammar is not all it should be.]

It all started with an evening show put on by the Language Dept. on Wed. 10/29. Some of the Japanese students (here learning Chinese) were asked to do an act. They did, intending to show good will between Chinese and Japanese people. Some people clapped, others did not, but everyone walked out of the hall in an ordinary way. Nothing more was said.

At Thursday noon, we heard students gathering outside our building and they were shouting slogans with fists and eyes raised up to our building. I figured they must have been angry with some of our foreign students. Then signs were put up on a monument and trees. The signs said things like: "Get out you Japanese pigs." Some said Japanese dogs; other signs were about China being a great country, etc. As the afternoon progressed, more signs appeared, more students appeared and the chants, slogans and heated blood were beginning to boil. The students moved right over to the steps in front of our doorway and were more or less blocking it. Now they were asking for the Japanese students to come out and apologize for the act they had performed on Wed. night. It seems the kids' act had been talked about during Thurs. morning and it was interpreted as an insult to the Chinese.

One little spark can light a terrible fire when it comes to Chinese and Japanese relationships. As the crowds increased, so did the mood. It became very ugly even as they repeatedly sang their National Anthem. Then some students brought a flag over and that increased the patriotic swell. On top of that, a group from another university arrived with placards supporting the students. Cheers went up which could have injured eardrums! Around 4 PM, the students were so riled up that they literally broke through our door and raced up the stairs (the elevator has been turned off earlier in case something like this would happen) looking for the rooms of the Japanese students. It was a disgusting mob scene as they went down the hallways turning the knobs on every door and kicking in some doors, breaking glass, etc. On one floor, they kicked the door off its frame, entered and were attacking two Japanese girls before they were pulled off! As they were hitting the girls, they were shouting, "kill, kill." The scene was very nasty. With their clenched fists and teeth they told me that they were Chinese and they would defend their country's honor! I told them that I could agree to a demonstration for some purpose, but that they had now broken the law with what they were doing and I could not agree or let them go further. They were shouting so loud and right in the face of the young floor attendant that she was shaking and crying. I put my arms around her and told the students to leave her alone and get out of the building. The smell of dust and sweat, plus the noise on the stairs and in the hallways was all totally disgusting.

I asked the authorities to please notify the police. They said there were plain clothes police in the crowd. Big deal! After this first foray, it was followed by at least two more. I stood at the top of the steps on our floor landing and forced some of them down. I also told them they were being disgraceful and that the foreign teachers and visitors were alarmed at their behavior. Our Foreign Affairs people were telling us to lock ourselves in our rooms, but I did what I thought I should. Anyway, the students were kicking down doors, locked as they were! The last rush into the building had the students going straight through to the back door and into the garden area between our two buildings. They rushed up to our dining room which was now being used so the doctor could help our door guards who had been cut by the crash of the glass doors. It seems that a few students had been pulled in there for questioning and now the students were chanting, Fang ren. [release the people].

Since we were now seeing a mob in action, there, with their country's flag up front, they charged into the dining room breaking down the whole automatic door, all the windows and inside some took chairs and crashed them across the tables. They overturned tables and broke more things, but retreated before they destroyed the whole dining room. At this point, other students ripped down the electric folding fence between our building and the Guest House and the mob took up our whole garden with their angry shouts and destructive ways. I was watching from my window in total unbelief. All of a sudden, the back gate was opened and in surged about 30 men and they raced towards the students. They began hitting, kicking and dragging some of the mob, but then they stopped as the students started running back out to the other side of our building. I assume they were plain clothes police, but they didn't take any student away.

Then at 7:30, all the teachers and students here were told to pack a few things and be ready to leave. How they were to get us out of the building was a very big question. We have no real back door where we could have gotten the Japanese students out safely. They would have to go down our stairs, through the lobby and out! The lobby was in shambles and there was no control of the mob. We waited and waited and listened to the constant chants, and singing of the mob. Then on our floor a group of about ten men arrived and used one classroom to videotape the actions going on down in front of our building. They were some kind of police, but there again, they just sat around smoking and sleeping! I was trying to watch the activities from different windows. Since it was now near midnight, I called the Foreign Affairs gal and asked her to let us go back to our rooms and sleep as there was no way we could get everyone out of the building. She said yes, get some rest.

Shortly thereafter, from my window I could see that the police had arrived, along with a division of "storm troopers" with their helmets, batons and shields. They came into the garden and just got into formation. Finally they were given a command and they went charging over to the area in front of our building. They may have scared some of the students as they did push back a little, but believe it or not, it was an empty show of force! The troops came back into our inner garden, took off their helmets, sat on their shields, started smoking and laughing. Water and other things were brought to them and it was like a party atmosphere! People were out front trying to talk to the students, but I couldn't see who they were. Nevertheless, the students still shouted their demands and stayed put. A line of policeman did keep the students back from where the "troops" were, but they just stood there as the speakers and students exchanged ideas. Finally, at 2:30 AM the students were starting to head back towards their dorms and I unpacked my little overnighter and started getting ready for bed. Before I could get into the bed, the phone rang: "Be in the lobby in ten minutes." I threw things back in my bag. So in ten minutes we were over 80 foreign students, ten foreign teachers, the teachers of the foreign students and our Foreign Affairs people.

The buses must have been out the back gate for hours and so at 3 AM we were on three buses with a police escort. The only ones who knew where we were heading were in the lead car. We went quite a distance and I was starting to see signs for the roads to the airport. The hotel was way out in nowhere! They didn't seem to be ready for these 100 or so souls at 4 AM! There were no towels or pillow cases in our rooms, but most of us were glad to be ready for some sleep at 4:30.

At 9:15, Fri., we got a call to go down for breakfast at 9:30. After eating we were told that we were in a very safe hotel owned by the Public Security. We were not to leave the hotel for any reason, nor contact anyone by phones. They were afraid the students would find us! When we asked about the conditions back on campus, we were told that the students are confined to the campus and would have classes on Sat. and Sunday. Any student who tried to leave would be expelled. We were also told that crowds had gathered at the gates of our university and they were expecting more trouble. After lunch, I finally got some sleep and since the towels had arrived, I was going to take a shower after my rest. My roommate, a Japanese student, woke me up and said, we have to be downstairs in ten minutes as we are moving to another hotel! Unreal!

Back in the buses we went and further out of town did we go. We were out in the countryside now and wondered where a hotel would be. We finally arrived at a spacious compound and it was a little eerie as there were no people around. We went around the winding paths and finally got off the buses. As we were standing there, someone overheard the conversation going on with the hotel people and they heard them telling our people that the hotel did not have a license to "host foreign guests." So we were brought to a place to sit down while the negotiations took place. Mind you, all that was happening to us was the work of the Provincial Government and the main office of Foreign Affairs! We asked our people why we had moved from the other hotel and they told us because it was no longer safe! So much for the morning speech about how safe we were in a Pub. Security Hotel! It seems the hotel had received calls asking if Japanese students were there. Most likely it was reporters from newspapers rather than students.

Anyway, negotiations taken care of, we were assigned rooms, but we were not to tell anyone we might meet that we were from. One student had a T-shirt with the school name on it and he was told to change it or turn it inside out! This hotel was very nice. At least we could walk around outside of our rooms. We all settled in again and at least this was a nicer "hide out." I finally got a hot shower and started writing this epistle. Then around 11:30 a knock on the door. The two men from the Japanese Embassy in Beijing had arrived so I had to wake up my roommate. She was in and out of the room a good portion of the night so I didn't get much sleep. After breakfast on Sat. morning we were told we might be there for a few more days. We foreign teachers asked if we could go back, or at least to be nearer the city. That was out of the question as all decisions were being made by the top authorities of the Government. One of the Chinese teachers told me that we might even have to leave this hotel!

After lunch we were given some news and it wasn't good. Some people (students?) had gotten into our building again, but no more destruction and our rooms and apartments were not broken into, but the situation continued to be unsafe. We were told that all schools, including primary schools, were to have classes on Sat. and Sun. and that banks and all businesses were to have work days. Their aim was to keep people off the streets as this riot had spread out well beyond our university. The riot was in all the newspapers and on the local TV news, but evidently the news hadn't spread to the whole country.

All day Sat. the Japanese gov't. people and the province people were having discussions. We didn't get too much news about that only that the Japanese gov't. did not see the need for an apology. Whether that was true or not, I can't verify that at this time. Then on Sat. evening, we saw for ourselves what was happening back at and the city streets. Mobs were out of control! They ripped down the name plaque of the university off the front entrance, threw stones and broke through the gate! The mob had overturned cars, including police cars and were breaking storefront windows. Now, we realized why we were being kept away from the school. We felt a little like Illegal Immigrants being moved from place to place!

Then the TV interviewed two students and they were very remorseful and said they would never do what they did again and they truly loved their university! A little late for that, I would say. Their so-called patriotism of Thursday showed what can happen when clear heads are not being used. Patriotism and Nationalism can be very scary indeed!

After breakfast on Sun. morning we were told we might be able to go back to on Mon. as the doors and windows were being fixed and things were calming down. It was a beautiful day and so we spent it in walking around the beautiful grounds (this place was like a family resort, so on Sun. some families were walking around) and chatting with each other.

At 3 PM the Japanese students asked us to meet with them. They are four very sad, humiliated and apologetic youngsters. They never meant any harm, but I would say their understanding of the deep-seated hatred the Chinese have towards them is not fully understood. They explained their skit. On the back of their T shirts, one had the words for "Japan," one had "China" and the middle shirt had a heart and in it the word "love." They also had borrowed bras from the girls and wore them over their T shirts. On their heads they had some kind of paper hats with the names of some famous Chinese and Japanese people. Unfortunately, on the back of the head of the guy who had China on his back, there was the character for "look," so from the back of his head he had "look," then on his back down to his rear, he had China! Soooo, it appeared to be: "Look down on China!!" Dynamite!! The heart and love seemed unimportant after that.

They said that some people clapped after their act, but they noticed many did not. They left the hall without any incidents. The students told us they were to return to Japan. Then the Korean students asked to have a talk with us as they wanted to leave whenever we did and not stay any longer. The Japanese students may have to stay longer. We agreed to meet with the Koreans at 5:30. Around 4:30, we, the teachers, got word to be ready to leave in an hour so we couldn't meet with the Koreans. We were on the bus at 5:40, with a police escort to the school, arriving before 7 PM. We came in the back gate closest to our building and there were police and police cars everywhere. Where oh where were they when we really needed them and why didn't they come earlier on Thurs. when they could have put an end to the nasty atmosphere, and not caused such misery for the whole city?

I have not heard if any of the students will be reprimanded or punished in some way. A demonstration is one thing, but breaking and entering and assault are criminal offenses, at least in the USA. Demonstrations are not usually tolerated in China, so why was it that this one which started at noon did not have the police arriving until after midnight? I fault the university officials for that. If the students had sneezed in a politically incorrect way, they would have been hauled in immediately. The question many of us have is: Was it because the students were after the Japanese? Was it tolerated because of that? One of our group actually heard his teacher friend say as much!

I am thoroughly disappointed and disgusted with our students. They broke the law! I have seen student demonstrations in Hefei in 1986, then the big one in Beijing in 1989 and in both the students never broke even a glass! The students were in Tian-an-men for over six weeks and held to non-violence.

While we were in hiding, one of the Chinese teachers said that the Chinese always feel that the Year of the Sheep is an unlucky year. This year we had the SARS, then the usual floods and earthquakes, and now this. It is November now and so in January we will move into the Year of the Monkey, which I hope will be a better year for all. I don't know how much you have read about this 21st Century Xi'an Incident, but I fear the Chinese media will put a "spin" on it that may not be telling the world the whole truth of the messy, nasty, unacceptable conditions that occurred here.

Sorry I gave you so much to read, but I think you will be very interested. I found myself staring in anger at the students today as I walked to and from classes. They read my look as many looked away, or down as they passed me. I do remember some of the faces I came face to face with in our hallways on Thursday and I may stop them if I bump into them and have a few words with them!